USATF voices: a call for passion, civility and common sense


Eight years. That’s what Jon Drummond got Wednesday for multiple doping violations. Where are the howls now — and where have they been, because everyone had to know something of this magnitude was coming — from the athletes who filled the room just two weeks ago in Anaheim, California, at the annual USA Track & Field athletes advisory committee meeting, where Drummond was improbably still the chair of that very committee? There’s been silence, mostly, and that is just incredible. No, not incredible. Wrong. Where is the outspoken condemnation? For real? Where is it? Contrast that with the criticism and anger that emerged from some, if not many, at the end of that very same USATF convention. The USATF board voted to put forward federation chairperson Stephanie Hightower for the IAAF council slot at elections next year despite a floor vote for Bob Hersh. This produced raw emotion. Why? Sexism? Racism? Petty personality politics? Some combination of all three? Or something altogether else? The intensity is all the more mystifying given USATF’s fantastic financial performance and the wholesale changes underway at the IAAF level.

USATF board chair Stephanie Hightower at IAAF meetings this past July in Oregon // photo Getty Images

Big picture:

USATF, after years of putting the fun in dysfunctional, finally appears to be on the right track under the leadership of Hightower and chief executive Max Siegel.

For some — if not many — in track and field and the broader Olympic scene, that is a hard sentence with which to come to grips.

The evidence is right there, though, plain as day, and the critics have better start dealing with it.


Because the change is here, now in the United States, and it’s coming internationally, and the opportunity is there for USATF, Hightower and Siegel — repeat, USATF, Hightower and Siegel — to play a hugely significant role in the coming years in the governance of international track and field.

There’s room for everybody who cares about the sport, who loves it, to have an opinion. No problem there.

But here is a call for the discussion to be ramped down to levels of civility and tolerance.

This reminder: the Olympic values, in shorthand, call for excellence, friendship and respect.


Distance standout Lauren Fleshman’s website proclaims, “Dwell in positivity — it’s worth the effort!” She is now the mother of an 18-month-old. Would language like this be acceptable at any Mommy and Me class — Fleshman writing at that very same website, recapping the annual meeting: “I don’t know enough about Stephanie Hightower to know if she would be good at the job or not, or better than Bob, etc. But I do know that at this meeting she was full of s***, so that’s not a good start.”

Here is a quote published at Flotrack from USATF activist Becca Gillespy Peter, who also attended the annual meeting:

“Bob is the most upstanding person ever, and what kills me is that he’s not an ass-kisser like Stephanie and he doesn’t play these political games, I mean obviously he knows politics, but a lot of this stuff with USATF is just beneath him. It’s not his style to go on the offensive against something like this.”

The Orange County Register ran a column that said Hightower’s “lack of professionalism and questionable ethics have long been evident,” going back to long-distance telephone calls made in 1992 (22 years ago, come on, really, and more to the point, as the Register noted, the state agreed not to seek repayment). The paper also chose to note that the Columbus, Ohio, school district — she lives there — enrolled Hightower’s child at a sought-after school even though she had not filed the proper paperwork, citing the Columbus Dispatch.

Let’s pause for a moment.

All public figures know that criticism goes with the territory. But making a professional matter personal — by bringing up family business, working in the child and the school, and relying on another newspaper to do it? To allegedly prove favoritism? Isn’t that something of a stretch to insinuate that’s the smoking gun that gets her but good when it comes to that proposition about professionalism and ethics?

To reiterate, everyone with an interest in track and field and in USATF ought to dial down the rhetoric from an 11 — using the Spinal Tap scale — to, say, an eight. Disagreement is fine. Cable-channel nasty name-calling is not. It needs to stop. Moreover, the snark needs to stop, or at least be toned way down. If you think you're the smartest person in the room, or on the message board -- you're not, guaranteed.

Now: who legitimately thinks anyone gets to be the senior vice president of a major international sports federation without playing politics?

Let’s not be naive, people.

There is little question Hersh is the senior IAAF vice president right now because Britain’s Sebastian Coe and Ukraine’s Sergey Bubka, who are also vice presidents, are going to run for the presidency next August, and Hersh was — in 2011 — the very excellent compromise candidate for the No. 2 spot.

All of you who would profess to be so in the know about the IAAF and its ways, and whether Hersh has wielded magic for the United States over the years: if you, like me, were in Daegu, South Korea, for the 2011 elections, let’s reminisce together about that weird technical glitch in the electronic voting system that almost cost Bubka his vp slot.

All right, then.

I have covered the Olympic movement since 1998. Hersh has been on the IAAF council since 1999.

Hersh is now 74 years old, turning 75 next Feb. 12. Lamine Diack, the outgoing IAAF president, is 81. If Hersh were to see four more years, he’d turn 79 before the end of his term.

Coe is 58. Bubka is 51. Hightower is 56. They are all contemporaries, elite athletes from the 1980s (and in Bubka’s case, ‘90s) who are now in their prime as executives.

If, like me, you attended the International Olympic Committee’s 5th World Conference on Women and Sport in Los Angeles in 2012, you would understand the movement is actively looking to bring more women, and in particular women of diverse backgrounds, into positions of management and leadership.

See Stephanie Hightower.

If, like me, you also attended the USATF meeting in Anaheim, all you had to do was sit down at that AAC meeting and listen to Siegel for this reality check:

USATF revenue up 79 percent from 2011 to 2014, from $19 million to $34 million. Assets up 472 percent from $3.6 million in 2011 to $17 million by the end of 2014. And more — including a raft of new sponsors, and palpable energy driven by the long-term Nike deal.

“I am just really excited with the progress of our organization since Max has been at the helm,” Olympic 400-meter gold medalist Sanya Richards Ross said upon walking out of the room that afternoon. “I am excited about the transparency and his accountability to the athletes and I am very optimistic for our future.”

Why would this be? Because, in large measure, USATF is following the exact same model as the USOC — the board chair, Hightower, has empowered the CEO, Siegel, to do his job, just the same way board chair Larry Probst has given chief executive Scott Blackmun the authority to run the USOC.

Now — does USATF still have some governance rough patches to address, which the USOC has reminded it of? Absolutely. Are things perfect? Hardly.

At any rate: it’s against the backdrop of a hugely upward and optimistic trend that the next shoe dropped, the 392-70 vote as the annual meeting was coming to a close recommending Hersh for the IAAF slot. The USATF board then heard from both candidates, Hersh and Hightower, and voted, 11-1, for Hightower.

Here is the thing, and this is what seems so problematic for some: that 392-70 vote was a recommendation.

This reminder: unless you live in Vermont, where town hall meetings are the thing, we do not live in a straight-up democracy. We live in a representative democracy. Votes of more than 400 people can far too often slide into a high school-like popularity contest, or something similarly meaningless.

The USOC’s downfall some 12 years ago was that it had a cumbersome board of more than 120 people, its decisions racked by petty, personal politics. Sound familiar? Now the USOC board is down to 15, and it works.

In his appearance before the USATF board, Hersh absolutely had a chance to make his case. To put it another way: he got to compete.

So did Hightower. She got to make her case, too.

Hersh lost. Hightower won.

This happens in sports, and it happens in sports politics.

USATF had a process in place. The process was duly followed.

The time for whining about it, friends, is over. It’s time to move on. There are far more important issues with which to contend — like why the best track and field athletes in the United States did not rise up and ask that Jon Drummond be immediately provisionally suspended as chair of the AAC as soon as it was apparent that Drummond had been implicated in the Tyson Gay matter.

If Drummond had been exonerated, he could have had his position — or an even more promising future in USATF leadership — back.

Instead, he got eight years. From the decision: “A coach must be a watchdog when it comes to prohibited substances.” From Siegel: "We are all deeply disappointed."

Where, now, are the voices — especially those who were in that room in Anaheim two weeks ago — who will rise up in defense of their peers, the clean athletes who in roughly 20 months will put on the red, white and blue and compete in Rio de Janeiro for the United States at the 2016 Summer Games?

You want something to be passionate about? Be passionate about that.