Re: Re: Part III

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In the final part of our interview series with Steve Jones, Mark Plaatjes, and Greg Meyer, the three continue their commentary on what they feel may bolster the American and British winning of races at an international level, as well as a few suggestions as to what they might envision as helpful long distance running industry changes for the future.

“I think we’ve touched on a lot of different things,” Meyer summarized. “I think the club system should continue to grow. I think we need to be more equitable in how we disperse funds. (Including) USA Track & Field. I don’t think one entity should determine where they spend their money, because it starts to look like appearance fees as opposed to, ‘Hi, we want to help the sport, let’s divvy the money up among all of them.’

Yes, based on comments coming out of the quarters of one of the groups (Hansons) which said “no thanks” to the 'developmental funds' which were 'donated' by the NYRR (with distribution help by USATF) back in February, very clearly there were strings attached to this money and, what do you know, this bore out when Ritzenhein and McGregor chose ING NYCM for their debut marathon this fall.  Then NYRR neatly ended up with the men's OT marathon.  Seems that NYRR made USATF (and certain USATF-designated developmental clubs) an offer they could not refuse.  How to avoid such collusion in the future is an interesting problem seemingly without a viable solution at this point. 

I think the discussion around holding athletes accountable to—or having the responsibilities to the races they go to. Somebody could draft a simple document, a one-pager, that says ‘These are your responsibilities when you go to a race. If you don’t sign this going into the race, you don’t get travel money, you don’t get a hotel room. You’re on your own.’ And I think races would buy into that. And it’s a very simple document. You’re going to show up at the pre-race press conference; you’re going to show up at the race; you’re going to do the press conference; and if you want to do a dinner before, that’s fine. And if you accept airfare money, you may have to do a clinic. Because you know what, that’s what we’re asking you to do.

A union of races/race directors would likely be the answer to that end.  A union of athletes might be helpful, too.

(Then) The agents. The agents need to take a different view of the sport. It’s not about makin’ money. And they need to take a different view on how they treat their athletes. I think there ought to be standards for who represents athletes. There are people out there that have no business representing athletes. You’ll have athletes show up at your door for a race, you didn’t know they were comin’. Oh, the agent just lied to them. You say, ‘What are you doin’ here?’ and they say, ‘Oh, my agent said I’m in.’ ‘Ohhh…’ I answer. They’re so unprofessional. If you want to get a photograph of an athlete who’s coming to your race, you can’t do it. Where do you go? I mean, it’s all about money. It’s all them just…you know? And (as an elite athlete coordinator) I’ll see—half the time they want to send an athlete in so they don’t have to feed them that week. (laughter from someone) I’m serious! It’s sad. And it’s sad for the athlete, but we’re letting these agents that aren’t professional get away with it. I also think some of the agents who are very professional take a short-term view of the athletes and the sport.”

Yes, certainly.  I heard from a local elite (not dropping names, but a notable elite US runner even past 40 and an Olympian several times over) that for the vast majority of full-time runners an agent is an extravagance.  An agent earns his pay for someone who has a $1 million-plus income and coinciding image to manage, but for people earning much less it is a waste of money and lazy on the part of the athlete.

“They’re not cultivating careers,” added Plaatjes. “They’re not cultivating careers and they’re not cultivating the sport,” agreed Meyer. “And I know it’s easy to point to America and say it’s an American thing. But it’s not just an American thing. It’s everywhere. In the U.K., I mean those guys have protectionism over there, too. They’re only going to let so many people in. The London Marathon controls their field. You’re protecting your sponsors. You’re trying to create a product that people want to buy, that want to watch, that they want to participate in. But I think the agents need to step up. I think the athletes (too). I think what’s a perfect example that Steve was talking about was the young guys not making a lot of money. I think it’s one of the reasons I enjoy watching the Hanson’s group so much. These were not the ‘A’ level athletes coming out of college. It’s just a bunch of hungry guys—that you know what?—if they make a bonus, wonderful. They don’t have…but it’s hunger. And ‘I want to see how good I can get.’ That’s it. These other guys come out, and I don’t want to say—you know what—we did our sport a disservice when we got ARRA going and everything else. We just had the wrong people managing USA Track & Field that were back then TAC. But there were rules. You couldn’t go everywhere. I mean, you had to get permission, and…you were held accountable.”

While exclusively US-centric prize purses are problematic, an overall prize purse with a 'separate' prize purse for top US finishers is a fine compromise.  And be honest, is USATF really beyond its days of mismanagement?

Plaatjes feels potential mentoring by some past great performers often is overlooked. “An interesting thing to me, and I’m just choosing Boulder, because that’s where I live. You have Steve Jones; you have myself; you have Arturo Barrios; you have Frank Shorter; you have Benji Durden; you have Lorraine Moller; you have Uta Pippig; you have Colleen De Reuck; you have Nadia Prasad. Do you think any of the young guys that live in Boulder has ever come up to me and said, ‘Do you have any advice for me, on what to do in the marathon?’ No. Has anyone asked you, Jonesy?” “Not really, no,” the Welsh former world recordholder answered. “Apart from your group,” added Plaatjes. “No,” Jones again replied. “No. I know for a fact,” continued Plaatjes. “Arturo Barrios has had the world record over 10K. Do you think Dathan or any of those guys have spoken to Arturo about advice? No! Why not? These guys have been there, have done that. They’ve learned so much. They’ve made mistakes. And maybe you don’t need to reinvent the wheel if you talk to these guys.”

So, Ritzenhein, Ed Torres, and Hartmann likely could have performed better by getting multiple inputs from voices of experience, yet chose not to and instead stuck with just their coach through which to filter his own experience and the experiences of others.  Why?  What is so difficult about consulting other (often better-experienced) sources, especially when they are so easy to come across?  What is wrong here? 

Keeping in mind that almost everyone uses examples of those in their own back yard, such as Dathan Ritzenhein, Colleen De Reuck or Jorge Torres in Boulder where Jones and Plaatjes live, similarly Meyer lives in Michigan and just as often uses club team members from his State as examples. “It’s funny but the Hanson’s group does,” he explained. “The Hanson’s group will ask me, they’ll ask others. They want to bring in all the information they can. And to me, that’s what it’s about.” And that is exactly the point Plaatjes was making. “Absolutely, absolutely,” added the Stuttgart IAAF World Champs gold medalist. “The guys are not utilizing the resources that are available to them. And I just choose Boulder, because that’s what I know. It’s a prime example, that…Why don’t these guys go, with Jonesy, Mark, Arturo, ‘We’d like to buy you a beer. Just want to chat.’”

Which is why the Hansons guys (among others) routinely and consistently achieve and even overachieve and the proud prima donnas determinedly make more mistakes than they ostensibly need to.

Meyer believes the federation could take a more active role in athlete development. “Look at USA Track & Field, that should do all these young development things and stuff like that,” the last U.S. male winner of the Boston Marathon critiqued. “How come they never bring in athletes to sit down and talk? Talk about not just the wins, the failures. How do you get past this?” Still, Meyer remains optimistic about the future of American distance running. “Being the only born-American here, and single guy, happy guy—no (laughter), I look and see for the first time in a number of years, opportunity for American distance runners. I don’t know what’s going on in Europe, I don’t know if they have developmental programs going on. It used to be, Europe was a hotbed for distance running. They’re just a bunch of hard-assed guys who used to race. I don’t see that like I used to. But I see the guys looking back now at what worked in the 70s and early 80s and trying to recreate it. They’re trying. I really see the effort trying. But it’s hard because of the money. We didn’t have the money that corrupted it until into the 80s. But in the 70s, man, we were running faster.”

Do not hold your breath waiting for the federation to give much beyond token support to anything that is not already a success — USATF/USOC rides its cash cow (sprints, women's PV), which is not necessarily a bad thing, yet leaves mostly cow patties for the rest.

Jones concurred. “And you’re hungry, and I think that’s a part of it. But it would be interesting to make a comparison as to why the women responded worldwide, and in the U.S. why the women responded to the African invasion. And the men have never responded to it.” Meyer believes the reason may be because women were only allowed to move up in distance in relatively modern times. “People were hungry as a sport. In the old days, there wasn’t even a marathon for women until ’84. So, it’s new to them and they’re hungry. They were never given the opportunity to be athletic, except in things that men deemed they were suitable to participate in. I think that Title 9 in the U.S. has made a huge difference in the NCAA. But I also think Title 9 has hurt on the men’s side of Olympic sports because a lot of the funding has gone away. I think in the U.S., the U.S. Olympic Committee ought to be putting money into the colleges for Olympic sports, because that’s their breeding ground. You know, they don’t do that. It’s crazy. They have all these facilities, and it’s like, they ought to be putting scholarships out there. They ought to be doin’ something. To me the USOC is, again, they throw money where they traditionally throw it, and it’s a waste being flushed down the toilet. Put the money where your developing athletes—right in the U.S. Like it or not, it’s the colleges…

Radical, yet most pragmatic, especially if USATF/USOC has no genuine interest in crafting a viable club system. 

I think the training clubs that are out there now, whether it’s (Team Running USA) California, (Brooks) Hanson’s (Distance Project), the group in Colorado (Boulder Performance Training Group) with Brad (Hudson), it’s all having positive results. I think it’s great that outside entities are putting money into that philosophy and backing it up. But I think there does need to be controls over how that money is distributed. If it just goes to one or two clubs, it looks like appearance money. It’s what Steve talked about: the rich are getting richer. It’s about developing a group of people, if that’s what they’re after, and there needs to be some equity. They need to hand that over to USA Track & Field, and say, ‘We’re making a contribution to the development of the sport. You distribute the money equally to the clubs out there that you’ve been associated with.’ I don’t think it should be up to the entity that they get to pick and choose what clubs. That’s a dangerous road, because quite honestly, it’s appearance money…

  Right, and it is a shame (and a sham) that USATF would bend over and allow such dirty politics.  The NYRR funds went to three clubs that were clearly most likely to produce runners who could make a splash at NYCM — there are 35 clubs designated as 'elite development' by USATF, yet NYRR's $240K donation was divvied up between a whopping four of them, the four which feature the most high-profile athletes who already have significant sponsorship income and were likely to run a debut marathon prior to the OT.