Athletes erupt in their calls for reform against U.S. running’s governing body.
The 2014 USA Indoor Track and Field Championships in Albuquerque, N.M., over the weekend were supposed to be a highlight of athletic achievement. But even before the their start on Friday, they became the hinge piece to a yearlong dialogue on the reform of the national governing body of the sport, USA Track and Field. Some of the things that transpired—both on and off the track—have resulted in a social media firestorm and a demand for more accountability and transparency from USA Track & Field, the governing body of all types of competitive running in the U.S.
Although unrelated to the big controversy surrounding Saturday’ women’s 3,000-meter run, hints of what could be bigger picture issue appeared as soon as last Thursday before the meet started. Riley Masters, a post-collegiate athlete who runs for the Brooks Beasts Track Club, cried foul when he was placed in the slower of two proposed heats in the men’s 1500-meter run final, despite having the seventh-fastest seed time going into the championships. Social media outcry was swift; the hashtag “#FreeRiley” was circulated, and just over 24 hours later USATF quietly moved him to the faster of the two heats to take place on Sunday.
“The logic behind it, you have to assume it was a mistake,” Masters said before the switch to the “A” heat. “Common sense would say that I’d be in the fast heat.”
Masters was quick to say that he hoped it had nothing to do with his sponsor, Brooks. Nike athletes David Torrence and Galen Rupp were without a season qualifying mark, yet were in the “A” heat, and Lopez Lomong, also a Nike athlete, seeded eighth by time, was also in the faster heat. There it was, the long-standing question of whether or not Nike, an official partner of USATF and one of its biggest benefactors, was putting undue pressure on the organization for its athletes’ benefit.
It’s a long refrain, and it comes up every championship season. For example, Alan Webb, then a Nike-sponsored athlete, was boosted into the rounds of the men’s 5,000-meters at the 2012 U.S. Olympic track trials despite only having a provisional “B” qualifying mark and many athletes ahead of him by time. But Webb got in, while several of those who didn’t openly claimed sponsor favoritism to the media.
At the 2008 U.S. Olympic track trials, Nike athlete Adam Goucher had the 32nd fastest time in the 10,000-meter run, but his appeal for entry into the race was approved, while other non-Nike runners with faster times than Goucher were denied.
Favoritism claims could have been a non-factor after Masters was moved to the faster heat, but on Saturday, the first day of the meet, it began anew after a controversial incident in the women’s 3000-meter final.
Gabriele Grunewald, a Brooks-sponsored athlete with Team USA Minnesota, entered the final lap of the 15-lap race chasing two Nike Oregon Project athletes, Shannon Rowbury and Jordan Hasay. Around the first bend she passed Hasay, and there was contact between the two women. Grunewald’s agent Paul Doyle says Hasay had moved to the outside of lane one, and when Grunewald was passing on the inside, Hasay cut in sharply, where the two made contact. Hasay stayed on her feet, but Grunewald was quickly around the outside and past, chasing Rowbury down the backstretch.
WATCH: Women’s 3,000m Final
There was also brief contact as Grunewald came up on Rowbury on the backstretch, but again, Rowbury stayed on her feet as Grunewald went around entering the final turn. Rowbury had no response to Grunewald’s massive finishing kick, as Grunewald had a 20-meter gap when she crossed the line to win her first national title.
It was the initial contact with Hasay, Doyle says, and USATF confirms in their official statement, that caused a USATF field official to raise the yellow flag, indicating a possible field-of-play infraction. That yellow flag was taken into consideration by the USATF Women’s Running Head Referee for the meet, who ruled that the contact was not severe enough to warrant disqualification.
But after the race was over, Salazar filed a petition to have Grunewald disqualified. It was thrown to the head referee, who had already ruled the contact did not warrant disqualification, and the referee was consistent in the judgment, denying the petition. Salazar then appealed the decision, which was heard by a three-person USATF Jury of Appeal, who also ruled in Grunewald’s favor.
The issue, per USATF regulations, could have ended there, unless new evidence was submitted.
“They told us everything was over, and we were about ready to head out,” Barker said. But Salazar and several as-yet-unnamed Nike employees were “hovering around,” he added. Twenty minutes later the case was reopened and ruled in favor of Salazar, though as far as Barker could see, USATF viewed the same video they’d already watched for the previous rulings. Barker was not shown the new footage. In a press release posted online late Saturday night, USATF said the Jury of Appeal conducted two reviews and used “enhanced video evidence” to reach a final decision.
In a release on Sunday, USATF said the Jury of Appeal “reviewed additional video evidence,” though it did not say where it came from, to overrule their previous decision and “[disqualify] Gabriele Grunewald for a field-of-play infraction impeding Jordan Hasay.”
USATF has not answered follow-up questions posed by Competitor.com about the incident, nor has Salazar has returned multiple requests for comment.
Some of the things that happened then are hard to believe. (Be sure to read this story on LetsRun.com for an insider account of the events that ensued.)
“We will stick with the USATF decision,” Salazar reportedly told the Oregonian newspaper reporter Ken Goe. “We feel the right decision was made. We will abide by the rules of the national governing body.”
The social media furor spread quickly. Many high-profile stars of track and road racing tweeted support, including 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon winner Shalane Flanagan, who said, ”I must not understand the rules of my sport. Massively disappointed and upset to see both [Grunewald] and [Andrew Bumbalough] get DQ at USA indoors.”
Bumbalough, a Nike-sponsored athlete of Salazar rival coach Jerry Schumacher, was disqualified in the men’s 3000 meters, although his infraction was not released by USATF.
There were more hashtags thrown around, but USATF, even at the point of this writing, has remained eerily silent on the widespread outcry besides the statement released on Sunday.
Barker appealed Grunewald’s disqualification; it was rejected. He then appealed to the Jury of Appeals, the same three-person one that had within the hour ruled in his favor, only to have it also fail. Grunewald was disqualified, and USATF, in their statement, referred to the verdict as “final.”
As a result, Shannon Rowbury has been declared the winner with Sara Vaughn (Brooks) second and Hasay (Nike) third. Because Vaughn does not have the required IAAF qualifying standard for competing in the World Indoor Championships (sub-9:02) Rowbury and Hasay have provisionally earned spots on Team USA for that meet, set to take place March 7-9 in Sopot, Poland.
Grunewald chose not to compete in the women’s 1,500-meter run final on Sunday, but after that race—which was won by Mary Cain, who was followed by her Nike Oregon Project teammate Treniere Moser in second—the remaining women in the event held hands and walked the backstretch of the track in a show of solidarity for Grunewald. A Flotrack photo has quickly become the iconic photo of the meet.
“It’s been awful. It’s like a nightmare,” Grunewald says. “There’s no other way to describe it.”
But Grunewald says it was heartening and humbling to see her fellow competitors’ display of support, both at the track and through social media. “When this happened [Saturday], I did not expect that,” she says. “In my heart and in my mind, I felt like this was a fight worth fighting, but to know that there’s thousands of other people out there, including some of the most prominent runners in the U.S., who have my back, who believe this is an injustice, it makes me feel that this is important. This is not just about me; this could be anybody.”
Grunewald retained legal counsel shortly before her statement on Sunday evening, and on Monday will be filing a request for arbitration under section nine of the U.S. Olympic Committee bylaws.
She does not expect to make the trip to Poland for the IAAF World Indoor Championships in March, despite the merits of her case . But at this point, she says, it’s about more than just a national team spot.
“People are getting to the point where it’s like fight or flight for the athletes themselves,” Grunewald says. “The sport in the U.S. is getting torn apart, little by little, and this instance, specifically, I think it’s a big deal.”