In recent weeks, the running world has been rocked by a series of scandals. And USA Track and Field has been at the heart of much of the bad press, from doping tell-alls that point fingers at current stars and past medal winners to complaints about the demands being made by corporate sponsors (highlighted by 800m national champion Nick Symmonds’ refusal to sign USATF’s statement of conditions ahead of the world championships). Runners must be outraged and calling for blood. Right?
Uh, not exactly.
USATF isn’t sure that most average runners know it exists. In a series of outreach events the governing body conducted in 2012 at eight of the biggest track meets of the year, only 65 percent of the people surveyed had even heard of USA Track and Field and only 39 percent were members. This suggests that even among track and field fans, who are already a niche crowd, there is a niche inside that of the hardcore fans who actually know and care about the details of what USATF does for the sport.
And the number one thing that people said would motivate them to join USATF? Not reform, but merchandise.
James Chu and Heather Irvine are both members of the North Brooklyn Runners, a community running group in New York City. So, what has the group been talking about lately on their email listserves and discussion forums? Chu and Irvine will send along articles or links to keep everyone informed about the hottest issues in the running world, but mostly, said Chu, people just want to train for and run a marathon. They don’t identify with professional track runners, because the last time they probably ran in a track meet was in high school.
The group did debate the recent doping allegations surrounding Alberto Salazar, said Irvine. But, what about the whistleblower allegations that suspicious blood tests at the international level were covered up? Or the saga of Symmonds’ fight with USATF over what athletes can be required to wear?
“Not many people discussed it, actually,” said Irvine.
According to Symmonds, he’s been getting plenty of feedback on social media and support from runners at meets or out on trails—though, presumably, those runners who recognize Symmonds are slightly more dedicated track fans. “I would say it’s been 95 percent positive,” he said.
If there are millions of runners in the country and most of them don’t pay that much attention to the ins-and-outs of track and field, then what do they care about?
I’m going to guess that the 2 billion people around the world who watched Usain Bolt’s 100m final at the London Olympics weren’t watching because they could name the other seven people in the race. In the U.S., where that race wasn’t aired live, another 1.2 million people streamed it live online. (That’s a lot of people, but not as many as those who streamed the women’s gymnastic team final or the women’s soccer final during that same Olympics.)
For comparison, around 1.5 million people per night watched NBC’s TV coverage of the last IAAF Track and Field World Championships. And if you guessed that the night that had the most viewers during the 2011 World Championships was the night of Bolt’s 100m DQ, then you’d be right.
People care about the marathon, the 100m, and the Olympics.
This isn’t to say that plenty of athletes aren’t trying to connect with fans in other ways, to get people to care about more than those three things. But as this year’s World Championships come to a close in Beijing, it’s not even clear that the people who do follow track and field news are all forming the same opinions. A perusal of the comments on any Facebook post about running from Competitor, Universal Sports, or Runner’s World shows that for all the people who agree with Symmonds, there are some who think he’s in the wrong. For everyone who’s upset about ex-dopers in the sport, there were far more excited about two Gatlin vs. Bolt showdowns.
At the IAAF meeting held in advance of the championship meet, the five U.S. candidates for international federation committee seats all won election, including USATF President Stephanie Hightower. This is an unprecedented victory for USA Track and Field at the IAAF level—and that’s despite the fact that the nomination of those same candidates at the USATF meeting back in the fall prompted outrage from track insiders over the voting process and what is seen as reforms needed at the national level. Someone thinks they’re doing something right.
The main time USATF comes into the public eye (whether they could do anything to change that or not) is when they are blamed or praised for the performance of the U.S. team. As long as American track and field athletes win medals in Beijing (as of Friday night, the U.S. was leading the overall medal count with 14) and next year in Rio, almost all else will likely be forgiven.