Passing Strange, by James Dunaway, Note by Larry Eder, Part 3

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Exit for Winter 2008-9

This first appeared in American Track & Field Winter 2008, volume 15, number 8:

Passing Strange

When, in the space of half an hour on August 21, the United States’ men’s and women’s 4x100 relay teams both bungled their first-round baton exchanges in Beijing, it shouldn’t have been much of a surprise.

After all, the very first time the 4x100 was run in a major international competition – the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm – the United States team won its first-round heat in the world record time of 42.2 seconds, but was disqualified for passing out of the zone.

That was only the beginning. Since 1960, American 4x100 teams competing in the Olympic Games and World Championships have been disqualified ten times for dropping the stick or passing out of the zone – and in another eight instances have lost likely medals because of inferior baton exchanges.

[NOTE: For a brief history of the U.S. Olympic and World Championships efforts in the 4x100, scroll back to Part, 1, Part 2 on http://www.runblogrun.com or, our website, http://www.american-trackandfield.com ]

The double 4x100 foul-up in Beijing, which cost the U.S. an almost certain two podium appearances, was seen as an embarrassment by the USOC, which bases much of its sales pitch to sponsors on American athletes’ ability to win Olympic medals.

Perhaps as a consequence, CEO Doug Logan of USATF has appointed a seven-person panel charged with a sweeping review of the selection and preparation of the U.S. national track and field teams.

The panel includes Carl Lewis, winner of nine Olympic gold medals; retired Auburn coach Mel Rosen; Ralph Mann, 1972 Olympic silver medallist in the 400-meter hurdles, and currently one of the world’s leading sports scientists;
Benita Fitzgerald Mosley, 1984 Olympic gold medalist in the women’s 100-meter hurdles and a successful businesswoman who was Director of Olympic Training Centers from 1997 to 2000; and three employees of the U.S. Olympic Committee: Doug Ingram, a former swimming coach who is USOC’s Managing Director of Performance Services (Sports Medicine, Sports Science and Coaching); Steve Roush, another ex-coach with a swimming background who is USOC’s Director of Sport Performance; and Jay Warwick, USOC’s Director of Sports Partnerships, whose entire career before joining USOC was in taekwondo – as an athlete (eight national championships and an Olympic bronze medal), top-level coach, and Executive Director of USA Taekwondo.

Asked why three of the seven panelists he appointed were USOC employees, Mr. Logan replied that USOC supplies most of the money for USATF’s High Performance effort.

Here are a couple of thoughts for the panel. One problem inherent in our all-star 4x100 relay teams is that there is no Standard American Best Practice for exchanging the baton. Why not, then, develop a standardized baton-passing system that would be taught from grade school right through high school, college and beyond -- so that every sprinter on our Olympic teams would always know exactly what was expected of him or her?

A second thought concerns Olympic team camps. As mentioned in Dick Patrick’s column on the disastrous U.S. camp at Dalian, many of the athletes there would have done better if they’d stayed at home and arrived just before the Games began.

One of the U.S. best performances in Beijing was by an athlete who did just that. Stephanie Brown Trafton continued to train in familiar surroundings, competed in a couple of minor meets in California to hone her competitive edge, and brought home an unexpected gold medal in the women’s discus.

Talk to her, panel.
---James Dunaway

I can recall the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, after watching the men's relay baton fiasco, and then, the women's fiasco which followed. The story idea came up within minutes of that scene.

In terms of corrections in the piece, I do believe that there is some discussion, valid on the lack of control that USATF, USOC had over the Chinese position on the training camp. All indications were that it was a pit. A valid point was made that the distance between the throwing area on Crete and training camp was over an hour and few seemed to complain there. As the ombudsmen in this case, I felt that needed to be addressed.

Also, it should be noted that Stephanie Hightower was in Dalien for the duration, and that did need to be corrected.

In the end, this is just another example of how our sport kicks itself in the butt. How does the country with the best sprinters in the world not figure out a simple program, which is taught from junior high, on how to exchange a baton in good weather and in bad, how do we not just name a team of top sprinters and develop them as our relay team? It is not rocket science, and we look like buffoons around the world.

U.S. sports fans like lots of things, apparently. World Wrestling, Walleye tournaments, poker tournaments. If such chucklehead sports trash can get on TV ( look, I love fishing for Walleye, but watching it on TV, well, I would rather clean my fruit cellar), why can't we figure out how to put on a crisp half hour show on track highlights, training tips and updated results?

Our lack of success at developing a successful relay system is indicative of the changes we need to make in our sport overall. Some worry about the USOC taking over USATF, I do not think that is valid. I do think, however, that we have made ourselves a target for takeover with the Balkanized approach we take to everything-the sport is athletics, which includes cross country, road running, track and field, race walking, and yes, ultra running. You add in the age groups and you have got the sport covered. You show some respect to the coaches and officials and you have another strong contingency.

Tell us what you think of James comments! Email me at [email protected]

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