Before the Olympics I predicted that if Team USA, and specifically our track and field athletes, failed to meet our medal goals that we would hear louder and more forceful calls for a national Olympic sports policy or government sponsorship of Olympic athletes. These calls would be supported by a parade of statistics showing how the US lagged the rest of the world not just in the medal count but in medals per capita, medals per GDP, medals per dollar spent by the national governing body, and any other metric that could be devised to explain America’s athletic decline. In the end, the US dominated the overall and gold medal count. Although US track and field came up one shy of Project 30’s goal, given the truly historic nature of some of those medals we should take pride not just in what achieved but how we achieved it. To paraphrase the Chairman of the Board, we did it our way.
To recap what our track and field athletes accomplished in London: 29 medals, including 9 gold. Silver medals in the men’s 10,000m and 1500m, the first medals in those events since 1964 and 1968, respectively. The highest finish ever by an American woman in the 1500m. Three Americans in the 5,000m finals for the first time since 1932, and the 4th place finisher. American men finishing 4th and 5th in the fastest and deepest 800m race in history, after no American making the final of the 800m since 1996; and an American woman finishing 4th in the 800m. American men finishing 6th and 8th in the steeplechase, with that 6th place finish coming in only the runner’s fifth steeplechase. An American man taking 4th in the marathon. And that’s just the distance events, on top of our to-be-expected dominance in sprints.
In London, we did what many people thought was both genetically and culturally impossible: we broke the East African hold on distance running. As we transition from celebration to recovery to planning for Rio 2016, we should take a look at how we engineered this turnaround. No President’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Distance Running, Senate Subcommittee for Olympic Sports, or National Policy for the Strategic Advancement of Olympic Track and Field were necessary to produce these results. Just people in Eugene, Austin, Princeton, Los Angeles and elsewhere around the country who stood athwart our downward spiral and said: “Stop. This is our sport, and we’re taking it back.”
We took a return to fundamentals – long term development (Rupp), a gutsy blue-collar approach to training (Manzano), risk-taking and adventurism (Jager), intellectual brilliance (Centrowitz), consistency and resilience (Keflezighi). The very characteristics that define Americans lifted our flag to the rafters night after night at the Olympic stadium.
The most powerful counter-example that emerged from London is Australia. Australia is often heralded for its ambitious national policy of Olympic goal-setting, government support of athletes and nationally-funded sports science research and training. Despite their state-of-the-art facilities and high priority given to Olympic sports at all levels of government, Australia had a disastrous Summer Games. Australia earned 10 fewer medals in London than they did in Beijing, and 23 fewer than when they hosted the Olympics in Sydney. Equally devastating was Australia bringing only half the number of gold medals this year than in 2008. Since hosting the Olympics in 2000, Australia has been on a steady decline in overall medals, gold medals and their rank on the medal table. To their credit, Australians have not blamed their short-comings on insufficient government funds or support, but rather a lack of discipline, focus, toughness and dedication: qualities that American athletes possess in abundance, and that daily manifested themselves in the arena and then on the podium.
The issue of athlete sponsorship and support will likely – and rightly – dominate the conversations in American track and field in the coming year, building off of the momentum started by US athletes’ social media revolt against Rule 40. The fact that sponsorships garnered such a large amount of attention from athletes and fans underlines the expanding role that sponsors will play in developing the next crop of Olympians. Still, sponsors are only one part of the equation. Much more work remains to be done to ensure that track and field athletes have sufficient opportunities for lucrative competitions and club-level support to complement their sponsorships.
If there is one lesson that we should walk away with from the opposing trajectories of US track and field and Australian Olympic sports over the last 12 years, it is that a nation and its government cannot buy success – no more in athletics than in any other endeavor. Money is necessary but not sufficient, because ultimately success is earned at the individual level and not engineered or directed at the national level. Accordingly, we need to shift the discussion from asking how we support our athletes as they work towards the goals we hold for them to developing ways to reward our athletes for the goals they achieve themselves. Instead of making our athletes wards of the state and turning our sport into the bastard step-child of Solyndra and the DMV, let’s make our athletes pro athletes and make our sport a sport. Let’s take the next step towards the impossible and return track and field to the world of professional sports.
Cross-posted at Flotrack.org