Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Rejected at the Paddock

I'm going to remember that moment for a very long time.  Sunday at the US Championships, minutes before the 5000 final started.  My heart racing and sweat dripping down my face in the Des Moines heat, waiting for the check in clerk to finish the phone call.  I was ready to run: burnt orange Texas uniform on, spiked up, everything.  Over the last hour I'd somehow managed to calm myself and prepare mentally to race, even after a long weekend of wondering and hoping.

She ended her call, looked at me and said, "sorry, no, you can't run"  It didn't fully hit me until I'd gotten barefoot and walked over to the stands to watch the race I'd visualized myself in over the past year during almost every workout and run.  When I saw nine men lined up, only one of which was a collegian, I couldn't believe it.  Nine.  Of the original 18 accepted into the meet, half scratched.  Four days before, when the words 'Not Accepted' appeared next to my provisional qualifying time of 13:33.13 on the online entries/declarations page, I still held hope.  But USATF didn't fill the field after scratches.  Not even for a 23 year old hopeful, there, warmed up and ready to race.

This weekend hurt me.  I saw and heard a lot of things I wish I hadn't.  I feel disillusioned by what I've cherished as the purest of all sports, the one that's defined my life for almost nine years now.  This episode is the tipping point in my gradual realization over the past two years that US track and field isn't what it seems on the surface.  There are politics like you wouldn't believe.  Better have a friend in a high place or you're not getting anywhere.

This weekend's meet shouldn't be solely about selecting three people to go to Moscow.  The name of the meet says it all - The United States Track and Field Championships - so why did the 5000 final include such an alarmingly small fraction of the talent in the country?  Why wasn't the second American in the NCAA indoor and outdoor championships for this event - Maverick Darling in the race?  The meet should help younger guys gain experience and exposure.  Instead, the race ended up being a jog fest for Nike's athletes in front of a small crowd.  How hard would it have been to add Maverick, myself, and Andy Bayer, among others, all of whom were at the meet and ready to run?  A little bending of the rules in place.  Apparently the resistance to change is strong.

I wasn't going to blog about this in favor of forgetting about it and moving on.  But over the past couple days I've thought about it more and couldn't let it go.  I can only hope that USATF starts itching its scratches in future years.  People need to know what's going on.


  1. No, Joe, you definitely shouldn't try to 'forget about it and move on.' You should do exactly what you're doing.
    A huge thumbs-up to you, and Mav, and Mick, for having the guts to stand up and say something about this disgraceful episode, when no one else did much at all. (Props to LetsRun and Flotrack, too, for shining a light on this absurdity.)
    Change IS possible (hell, the Brits finally got rid of Ian Stewart, right?), but only if folks like you guys, and Lauren Fleshman, and Nick Symmonds, et.al., continue to have the guts to fight the corruption of the powers that be.
    It's a dirty, dirty sport, as you suggest, as it's run right now. But it's also, at its best, the most beautiful one around, and it *can* get better.
    Keep talking, keep running, and keep fighting the good fight, Man.
    I expect to see you in that race next year.

    In the meantime, I'm trying to do my little part by supporting guys like you, and writing angry letters to the USATF, like every track fan in the country should be doing.

    Thank you.

    SP in NJ.

  2. As a track fan and someone who was a trackie in high school when Steve Prefontaine was fighting a corrupt track establishment, I wish you luck -- and for you to know you (and the other athletes like you) do have support, even if it's hard to see. Keep up the effort.

  3. Thanks for writing this. I had the same experience a couple years ago in the heptathlon - I was 8 points shy of the standard (which is approx. 1/8th of 1% in an event scoring well over 5,000 pts.) and only 15 people in total entered the event. I petitioned, begged, called, emailed, as I was the next one on the list and no matter what there would be an empty lane. I received a response that no one without the standard would be accepted, and I replied with a list of TEN (yes, 10) people who had been accepted in other events without meeting the standard. This ruffled some feathers and they basically told me to shove it.

    No rhyme or reason to it, no real rules, all politics and who you know. It is really a shame and I was terribly disappointed. Just keep training and smash the A standard next time around!! I know it added fuel to my fire :)

  4. Joe,
    Well written piece. It was a jog fest out there. I feel so bad for you that you didnt get to run. If there is any consolation, I'm sure Steve Prefontaine would be proud of you if he were alive today.
    Keep on truckin'!

  5. It's typical of USATF officials not doing everything they can for our young athletes! Good for you Joe for blogging about it, what a disappointment that must have been not being able to run! Don't give up Joe, your young so keep following your dreams, hopefully we will see you in Rio!

    Dick Beardsley

  6. Joe, your realizations this weekend are ones that unfortunately all too many have shared. Unless you have a green and gold O on your jersey, or are a Nike professional, they force you to jump through so many hoops, and even still at the end, they will stand in your way of running. The thing I have found is that the USATF establishment is like an old, senile, grandpa; if you argue them on anything, they will stand up to you just to spite you, even though they are blatantly wrong. So many of those people are on ego-driven power trips. I would say that we just need to get the rules changed for situations like this, but to be honest, the USATF has blatantly broken their rules so many times that it wouldn't mean anything. 2008 was a prime example. The thing I realized is that in order to affect change, there really needs to be an athlete's union. And I think that is beginning to take shape, but it desperately needs to happen. The key is, getting the Nike professionals and other athletes that maybe aren't affected by these things that you or I would be, to take issue with something and join the movement. Otherwise, the USATF will continue to just be an organization that caters to the high profile names. Hopefully, the shear number of people that have been wronged by the USATF (and it grows every year), start to join forces. Because the one thing I can tell you is that you're not alone. Even though I'm no longer in the sport (partly because I had the same realization that it was so freaking political), I would love to be a part of kicking the entire USATF out, and quite honestly starting the whole thing over again. I get so pissed when I see athletes in your position, because it makes no sense.

  7. Great write up. USATF and IAAF definitely don't know what they are doing when it comes to sports management. They picked a town where they weren't going to have a big crowd. Des Moines did not deliver. Use Eugene or Stanford from now on.

    Sorry this happened to you, Joe. Keep on doing what you're doing and fight the good fight.

    However, Diego Estrada is technically an American now. He ran 13:15, and took 3rd at NCAAs, Maverick took 4th. He was the Top American in the NCAA. That's what is great about the US, we are suppose to be about inclusion. You were excluded in the 5,000m race, so don't exclude Estrada from being an American just because he wasn't born here. He is an American citizen, and has the years of hard work and determination that it took to become a citizen as proof of his love for America. Some mistakes were made in the Olympic Trials year with USATF and him as well that excluded him from the USA championships/Trials in 2012. Yes he ran for Mexico, but that doesn't mean we aren't his adopted country. He adopted us and we should adopt him. He is as American as they come and has ever been known to wear a TEAM USA jersey in road races.

  8. ^ Thank you for pointing that out Travis. I completely agree and in an unfortunate mistake overlooked Diego because he wasn't on the US list for some reason this year... certainly a guy I have A LOT of respect for and who should never be overlooked.

  9. @Kyle King: I would like to point out that Luke Puskedra, a U of O grad and Nike athlete, was seeded ahead of Joe and was not accepted as well. Alan Webb, a superstar and a Nike athlete was only 5 spots behind Joe and was also not let in. This decision, all be it the wrong one, was not about treating Nike/UO athletes differently from others. It was about USTAF making silly rules by the fly and then sticking to those rules as if they were set in stone. They should have known there was going to be a ton of scratches, just by looking at the declared list, and planned accordingly. I mean half of that list was made up of favorites to qualify in other events. Did they really think Jager and Hulling were going to run the 5k less than 30 min after the 3k steeple final? Yes, one or two of these top notch athletes could fail to qualify for their 1500 or 3k steeple final or fail to advance in the 10k, but all of these outcomes were answered two days in advance of the 5k final. No excuses USATF! You should have went down the list calling athletes (2 days is enough time to get to Des Moines even for the athletes not there like Maverick and Joe).

    @Travis, does the IAAF really have anything to do with where this meet was held. I would assume they don't have much of a say in the matter.

  10. I feel especially bad for Maverick at least Joe got to run in the 1500m prelims

  11. I was at the meet and I am glad you made this point. I think the race field should be filled and the point needs to be brought out. Somehow athletes and agents who give declarations need to be more committed to the event they are entered. Also the USATF needs to do a overview especially for filling the race field. Its ashamed a for thriving runners like yourself, Maverick, and Andy not to be in that race field. It is not good for the sport and athletes trying to continue their careers post collegiate if they can not be allowed to run this race especially when the field is not full. It is not repesentive of our country to have only nine runners compete (especially with your championship caliber times). Gene from MN

  12. Thanks for making a stand here Joe and thanks to Letsrun and Flotrack for the coverage. You and Maverick should consider getting involved with TFAA to get your voice out there even more. Adam Nelson and company are doing some great work over there to lay the foundation for an athlete-oriented counterpart to the USATF. Check out there site and join up...