Larry James

USATF: 12-1 is one more than 11-1


The USA Track & Field board of directors voted Saturday by 12-1 not, repeat not, to rescind its December decision to nominate Stephanie Hightower for a spot on the IAAF council. Meeting in Santa Monica, California, the USATF vote ought to put to rest the controversy that has lingered since the annual meeting in December in Anaheim. Then the vote was 11-1 in favor of Hightower following a 392-70 floor vote for current IAAF vice president Bob Hersh.

Plain math: 12-1 is one more than 11-1. The dissenter Saturday was one of the athlete representatives, Curt Clausen.

It’s time to move on, people.

USATF board chair Stephanie Hightower after Saturday's vote

“Change is just tough,” USATF board counsel Larry James said afterward, adding a moment later, “As we get to that 90 percent, the last 10 percent is the most painful.”

He also said, “Leadership has to lead.”

The 75-year-old Hersh said afterward, “I don’t want to comment at this time,” adding, “Obviously I have some misgivings about the whole procedure.”


Just to speak hypothetically, what would you make of someone who would suggest at a public board meeting that a woman had no chance of being elected an IAAF vice-president? Seriously? When women have for years now been International Olympic Committee vice-presidents? Should that person really be representing the United States of America? In 2015?

Again hypothetically, what would you make of someone who might suggest, also at a public board meeting, that Cubans don’t like Americans? In an era in which change between Cuba and the United States is plainly in the air?

At a time in which several of USATF’s seemingly most vocal critics are asking for enhanced transparency, what would you think if someone might hypothetically suggest that a discussion that has attracted keen interest over the past four months be held in executive session?

How about this:

Let’s dial back the wayback machine. It would be fascinating to give Hersh a dose of truth serum and ask: four years ago, did you say to Hightower, give me one final term and I will mentor you, even get you on IAAF committees, and then stand down?

Or if that truth serum was still going: last summer, in a private meeting, were you, Bob, asked in a private meeting if you would mentor Stephanie, and did you say, “I could but I won’t?”

Because Saturday, publicly, Hersh once again committed to mentor Hightower, if only he could get four more years.

As if.

To those critics who decry age-ism: the IOC in December affirmed its mandatory retirement limit at age 70. As a matter of best-practices governance, isn't it common-sense that the IAAF is going to enact a similar provision, and soon?

The winds of change are coming this summer to the IAAF. Either Seb Coe or Sergey Bubka is going to be elected federation president. Both are in their 50s. The USATF board decided in December that Hightower, 56, a contemporary of both Coe and Bubka from their time together as athletes and now as sport executives, would be a better choice as USATF nominee than would Hersh.

This U.S. debate about who ought to get the IAAF nomination has run its reasonable course.

For emphasis: there is nothing good that can come of continuing a dialogue, or debate, on this point any further.

The decent thing now would be for Hersh to concede. In politics, there are winners and losers. He has lost. Now he should do the decent thing, and the sooner the better, for the sake of the sport -- and the organizations -- he purports to love.

There is so much going now on that is good about USATF: financially, grass-roots investment and, of course, the prospect of a great summer at the world championships in Beijing followed by epic performances at the Summer Olympics next year in Rio de Janeiro.

This is the first time in maybe forever that all these things can be said about the state of affairs at USA Track & Field.

You just have to step back to see the big picture.

Those who prefer to dwell in divisiveness and name-calling are living in a past that is rapidly receding.

It’s over, people. Get on board.

Is USATF perfect? Hardly. No institution is or can be.

Does USATF deserve criticism when warranted? Absolutely.

That said, is USATF way, way better than it has ever been?

You bet.

Why? Because Hightower and the board have empowered chief executive Max Siegel to do his thing. She is not, repeat not, a dictator. She has grown into the job — as she would readily admit — and Siegel and the staff are doing what they do. That is how a $13 million business grows into $30 million, and it’s only getting started.

So, as this space has repeated several times: the time is now for civility, tolerance and decency. Of course, to reiterate, disagreements are fine. But, big picture, let’s stop the noise and the over-the-top lectures about history and democracy.

We — Americans — do not live in a democracy. We live in a representative democracy.

On the matter of the IAAF nomination, this representative democracy has now spoken, not just once but twice.

USATF should rightfully be the gracious leader among the nations in track and field. It’s time for everyone to get together so that USATF can humbly assume that role as a partner with others around the world — without unnecessary and unproductive personality politics that contribute nothing.

If you prefer it more plainly:

Complain and scheme if you want. Fine. But here’s the deal: you risk being left behind. Way behind.

At USATF, there are a lot of smart, progressive people now running the show. For real. Change is all around. If you step back and take a look, it’s right there. Is it going to happen in a day? Nope. Over time? Yep. It is happening now, and already? Absolutely.

Hightower, after the vote, had it right. She said, “This for me is about how we move the organization forward.”