Darvis "Doc" Patton

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.”

Wallace Spearmon's soulful 19.95

Wallace Spearmon Jr. has always been one of the most soulful guys on the track and field circuit. He runs with heart. He speaks from the heart. If only he could stay healthy, he could capture America's heart.

Maybe this is his year.

A few days ago, at the UTA Bobby Layne Invitational meet in Arlington, Texas, attended by track geeks along with wives, girlfriends, cousins, aunts and uncles and a few dozen other people who apparently thought that hanging out at a track meet might beat going to the mall, Spearmon ran the 200 meters in 19.95 seconds.

That was a world-leading time.

A note:

No one -- but no one -- runs 19.95 in March.

That 19.95 was the earliest anyone has recorded a sub 20-second time in the Northern Hemisphere, according to USA Track & Field.

A second note:

At that same meet, Spearmon's training partner, Darvis "Doc" Patton, ran a 10.04 100. That was the fastest 100 of the year.

A third note, and this -- particularly if you know track and field, and the potential of both these athletes -- borders on the amazing:

That race -- you can watch it, as well as Patton's, here -- was the first time in 2012 Spearmon had been in spikes past 90 meters.

"This is top-secret info," Spearmon said with a laugh. "We have been doing 30s, 40s, maybe 60s. 90 meters is the farthest I had run in spikes all year. I had been wearing flats," adding a moment later, "In that race I felt sloppy."

Spearmon also said, and here he was back to his serious self, "I have never been 100 percent. This is the first year people are starting to see what I am capable of. I have no idea what I'm capable of. I want to find out."

Spearmon has always had talent. No one has ever doubted that.

His father was the 1987 bronze medalist in the 200 at the Pan Am Games, and in college, at Arkansas, Wallace Jr. won the NCAA title in the 200 in 2004 and 2005.

Running the 200 at the world championships, he won silver in 2005, and bronze in 2007 and 2009.

Again in the 200, he finished in the bronze position at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. But then he was disqualified for stepping out of his lane.

That 2008 DQ claws at him still.

"I dreamed as a child of being an Olympic medalist. Not a world championship medalist.

"Not to take anything away from that. I have between four and eight [world championship] medals. I need that one from the Olympics. If I can get that one from the Olympics, and then when my career is over, I can say I achieved what I was after."

Last year, Spearmon was hurt -- a bad Achilles. That's why there's no "2011 world championship medal" among the string.

That's why, too, he's being cautious and yet aggressive about 2012.

"Doc came up to me the other day and said, 'You want to go home?' I said, 'I just want to go to practice and run 'til I can't walk anymore.' This is how I express myself."

"Typically at practice, I am The Man," Patton said, reflecting on his own long career in the sport. "I run the times. Now he comes in and runs faster than I do. We feed off each other."

Patton also said, "I think that if we both stay healthy, God willing we stay healthy, we are going to have a great year. And we are having fun."

You can see the fun in a series of YouTube videos that peel back the curtain on what Spearmon and Patton have been doing this year, along with others in their training group and coach Monte Stratton.

Tyson Gay, according to ESPN, won't attempt to make the U.S. team in both the 100 and 200; Gay, the 2007 100 and 200 world champ who himself has been dogged by injury, said he plans to focus only on the 100.

Spearmon said he hopes Gay is in the 200. Along with Walter Dix, the 2008 Beijing 100 and 200 bronze medalist and 2011 world championship 100 and 200 silver medalist. And anyone else. All comers.

"If I am ever going to medal," he said, "I would want everyone there, everyone at their best. That way you wouldn't be able to say, 'Oh, he only won because so-and-so wasn't there or this guy had a bad day.'

"I love to compete … I love track and field but I love to compete. Track and field has given me an opportunity to compete."

And he said, "Man, not to toot my own horn, I am trying to be humble and modest, I am healthy. I am healthy for the first time in a long time."