U.S. track and field: a 'monumental' step forward


When Max Siegel took over some three-plus years ago as chief executive of USA Track & Field, things were hardly all roses. For one, he didn’t come up within the sport. That meant, as the former long-jump champion Dwight Phillips, now the chair of the USATF Athletes Advisory Council, put it, “He wasn’t one of us.” That meant suspicion and scrutiny. Big time. From the start, Siegel made it clear the federation’s financial picture had to improve. At the same time, he also pledged collaboration. On Saturday, in a six hour-plus meeting at the Indiana Ballroom at the downtown Marriott in Indianapolis, Siegel and other USATF officials, working in concert with the athletes themselves, hammered out a historic plan that ought to do nothing less than re-shape the conversation about being a U.S. athlete in track and field and, as well, perhaps re-invent the industry.

Bottom line, though there are tons of fascinating details: USATF and the AAC agreed in principle on a revenue distribution plan that will deliver $9 million in cash to athletes over the next five years.

Unsaid, though totally obvious given USATF’s roughly $500 million arrangement with Nike, a landmark deal that Siegel negotiated and that kicks in come 2017: this could, maybe should, be just the tip of the iceberg.

“First and foremost,” said Phillips, “it was a monumental day. We made a pivotal move within the organization to [cement] the relationships between the athletes and the national office.”

Dwight Phillips at last month's 2015 world championships in Beijing // Getty Images

Will Leer holding the Golden Baton at the end of the 2014 World Relays in the Bahamas // Getty Images

Echoed Will Leer, the middle-distance standout, “You know, this isn’t blowing smoke: for the first time at a meeting I have been to between the AAC and the national office, and with all the interested parties — we actually got together and got something done.”

He added a moment later, “We came up with something I think the athletes are going to be very happy about. You can’t please everyone, obviously. But this is an enormous step forward in the professionalization of our sport.”

Wallace Spearmon, who for 10 years has been one of the best in the world at the 200 meters, said, “The chemical make-up of track and field is changing, and it is beginning with USATF and the AAC.”

Wallace Spearmon racing at the 2015 U.S. nationals in Eugene, Oregon // Getty Images

He also said, “With Dwight — I haven’t seen track changing so much as it has in the few months since he took over,” as the AAC chair.

“Max — when he first took over … I said to him, ‘We have been scarred before. This is no fault of your own. But you have to prove yourself to me. I don’t know you. You don’t know me. Right now, I don’t trust you.’ He took that for what it was; I didn’t mean any disrespect. Moving forward: year one, year two — I was actually impressed.

“And this,” meaning Saturday’s action, “feels like a step toward a brighter future.”

Last December, at the USATF annual meeting in Anaheim, California, Siegel had pledged $9 million in incremental funds to athletes.

How to divvy it up?

The meeting Saturday stemmed from a long-running conversation — which Siegel had asked the AAC to undertake — about how to define who was, or should be classified as, a professional track and field athlete.

Someone who wins a gold medal at the Olympics? For sure.

Someone who enters a race somewhere and wins, say, $500? Way more problematic.

At the meeting, with 19 athlete officers and event leaders and other high-performance personalities in attendance, along with Siegel and USATF officials such as Duffy Mahoney, the chief of sport performance, and Renee Washington, the chief operating officer, that conversation segued into something less elusive and more constructive.

Instead of trying to define who was or wasn’t a professional track or field athlete, the group turned its focus to USATF’s key mission — winning medals at the world championships or Olympics.

USATF rightfully can, and does, claim many jobs at hand — everything from winning medals to inspiring young people to take up the sport. But the primary job is high-performance development and, with that, winning medals.

Medals are not only good for the winners themselves; they produce a trickle-down effect for anyone and everyone with an interest in U.S. track and field.

For his part, Siegel said, “From the outset, we focused on outcome, accountability, collaboration."

USATF chief executive Max Siegel // photo USATF

With all of that in mind, here is what was decided:

— Beginning in 2016, roughly $1.8 million per year in cash will be distributed.

— That money is over and above current USATF tier funding, development funding and other programs. (More on the tier system in a moment.)

— Roughly 75 percent of the added cash will be evenly distributed among athletes who qualify for the “world majors,” meaning the IAAF world outdoor championships or the Summer Games.

— In practice, this will mean what? A $10,300 award for making the worlds or Olympic team.

— The remaining 25 percent will be distributed as bonus money for athletes who win a medal at the worlds or Olympics.

— In practice, this will mean what? Gold gets you $25,000; silver, $15,000; bronze, $10,000.

— Those who run in the relays, at least one round, will share equally in the amount of a bonus.

— All this is independent of any shoe contract deal or other endorsement; Diamond League or other international meet prize money; or appearance fees.

On tiers:

USATF classifies athletes into tiers — One, Two, Three and, cleverly enough, Four.

Those in One and Two are considered “elite”; in Three and Four, “emerging elite.”

Far and away, statistics show, medals get won by those in One and Two, and mostly One.

To be in One: you are a medalist, individual or relay, at at least one of the two most recent “world majors” and/or have a world top-10 ranking by Track & FIeld News and/or the website all-athletics.com.

Currently in One: 106 athletes.

Two: you made the top-eight at one of the two most recent “world majors” and/or are ranked world top-20 at all-athletics.com.

Currently in Two: 49 athletes.

In sum: the two tiers account for 155 athletes. Generally speaking, 130 athletes make a “world majors” team.

Why, once everyone got in the same room with the same vibe, did this turn out to be relatively straightforward?

Because, and this isn’t rocket science — it’s return on investment.

The U.S. team won 18 medals at the 2015 Beijing world championships. It’s obviously, just to take one important example, a better result for USATF and for track and field in the United States if, next August in Rio, the Americans take home a number in the mid- or even upper-20s.

To illustrate how all this might actually work for 2016 for an athlete, him or herself:

To start, a Tier One athlete is eligible now for $25,422 in annual support. This includes an athlete and medical stipend, and if the athlete names a coach, a coaching stipend for that coach; dollars to travel to domestic competitions; health insurance; and medical support services.

Now add in the new 10k.

As a baseline, you’re now at $35,422.

Over the last several years, USATF has doubled prize money at its national championships. First place at next year’s U.S. Olympic Trials will be worth $10,000; there’s a sliding scale that sees second worth $8,000, third $6,000, fourth $4,000, fifth $2,000 and $1,000 apiece for sixth and seventh.

First place at the U.S. indoors will be worth $5,000.

Let’s say you win at the indoors and take second at the Trials. That’s $5,000 plus another $8,000.

Now that $35,422 is $48,422.

At world majors, there’s a medals bonus that the U.S. Olympic Committee awards on behalf of USATF. It’s called “Operation Gold.” In 2016, gold will be worth 25k, silver 15k, bronze 10k.

Let’s say you take second at the Olympics.

That means 15k from Operation Gold plus another 15k from USATF. Now that $48,422 is $78,422.

The fine print:

Siegel and Phillips this week are due to sign a memorandum of agreement; additional details are scheduled to be worked out in the next 30 days. The program will be reviewed in the weeks before the 2015 annual meeting, in about two months in Houston, and finalized there.

What sorts of additional details?

Leer: “It seems like it could be construed as we could be paying athletes to stifle discourse — paying to shut them the hell up so we don’t have another Nick Symmonds episode,” a reference to the 800-meter runner who opted out of the 2015 Beijing worlds, citing a dispute with USATF over the wearing of national-team gear.

“This needs to be ironed out. But I think most athletes — they’re going to say, “Now we are getting paid to be at a championship, getting paid to represent our country.’ When you are getting paid, there is expectation.

“… You are expected to come there and perform. If you come and perform, you get rewarded.

“It’s a job like anything else and this goes toward rewarding the workers, who are the athletes. I’m pretty excited about it.”

So, too, Symmonds, who in a telephone interview Monday said, "I am really really pleased with this. It’s a huge step in the right direction."

He also quipped, referring to the roughly 10k making-the-team award, "I just wish I could retroactively get the $70,000 for the last seven teams that I made."

So, too, Darvis “Doc” Patton, the former sprinter, who like Philips called the development “monumental.”

Darvis 'Doc' Patton running at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials // photo Getty Images

He said, “This is something that makes me wish I could come back to the sport. It makes me want to come back and compete again.

“Given the history of [USATF] meetings, you went in like, OK, I’m going to brace myself for whatever. It wasn’t that at all. If I had to use one word, I would say ‘productive’ — it was a productive meeting.”

Mahoney chose “ground-breaking,” adding, “I think it changes the direction of the dialogue between us and the athletes. We are cooperating. And we are cooperating on trying to provide as many resources for elite and emerging elite athletes as we can.”