Next month's World Athletics Half Marathon Championships will take place without Team USA, because USA Track & Field chose to deny athletes who rightfully qualified their chance to compete in their event’s biggest stage, and did so in the quietest way possible. If only this was a first.
National governing bodies don’t have many actual jobs, and given how dismally they sometimes perform them, it’s remarkable so many people want NGB’s to expand beyond those few, apparently too-challenging tasks.
One of the primary duties of national governing bodies - indeed, the very task the Ted Stevens Act granted them a monopoly to perform - is fielding Team USA in their respective sport for international competitions. USA Track & Field’s shambolic handling of the qualification criteria and selection procedures for the 2019 Pan-American Games was a new low yet perfectly on-brand for the organization and the sport. The stealth editing of the official qual standards, the intern-blaming, the flaccid response from the affected athletes… Very USATF. Much track & field. The only institution that came out looking good was LetsRun. Wow.
At least last year, USA Track & Field sent a team to the Pan-Am Games which, after two rounds of arbitration, was the “right” team. Summer of 2020 offers different details but the same failure to live up to the standards of “You had one job.”
Tucked into the middle of Minnesota Distance Elite’s newsletter from September 11 is this:
[W]e received notification from USATF that they have chosen not to send a team to the World Athletics Half Marathon Championship on October 17 in Gydnia, Poland. Katy Jermann had earned a spot on that team with her 2nd place finish at the USATF 20k Championships (hosted by the New Haven Road Race) in 2019. Event organizers are still planning to go ahead with the elite-only race, but the United States will not be represented. The rationale for not sending a team – athlete safety – is a sound one, but it does not change the fact that it’s disappointing.
As of the afternoon of September 12, USATF has not posted anything on their website or social media channels announcing this decision. Other than Race Results Weekly’s David Monti on Twitter, no one in the broadly-defined track & field / road race media has shared the news. Nor have we seen anything from the athletes who qualified and were training to go, nor from their coaches (save the newsletter from MDE’s Chris Lundstrom) or agents.
As for their rationale of athlete safety, a quick scroll back through USATF’s Twitter feed reveals that they know American athletes competed at last week’s Golden Spike meet in Ostrava, Czech Republic - a town barely 10 miles from the border with Poland, the host country of the WA Half Marathon Championship.
Were those athletes safe in Ostrava? Was USATF concerned about their safety, even if they were not responsible for them since they weren’t there as part of Team USA? Did USATF advise them that it might not be safe, given that Gdynia, Poland, would soon be deemed unsafe for a Team USA appearance?
What about two days before that - September 6 - when some of the top American track & field athletes competed in Warsaw, Poland, on the Continental Tour? Does 230 miles and one month make that much of a difference in the safety of American athletes competing in Poland?
We can probably keep working our way back through the summer to show that professional American track & field athletes - not wearing a Team USA jersey, but many regular members of Team USA - have been competing in Europe for as long as Europe has been open for track & field competitions.
USA Track & Field - like any national governing body - exists to hold national championship events and field Team USA. Everything else they do is either a lesser clause of the Ted Stevens Act or their founding charter, or an example of mission creep.
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USATF has defaulted on both responsibilities this summer. They cancelled the Outdoor National Championships - something many European countries held later in the summer - and now they are choosing not to field a national team squad in a global championship. They mouthed something about safety, but given the return of sports - and, in some cases, fans - in the US and around the world, “safety” comes off looking like a cover for indecisiveness, generic unconcern or institutional risk aversion.
Yes, there are risks. There are always risks. Twice now in 2020 USATF has decided that fulfilling their basic charter-defined missions is not worth the risks most other sports have mitigated or overcame.
Perhaps at some point athletes will start thinking that their athletic careers, their athletics ambitions, are not worth the risks of putting those careers and ambitions in the hands of the national governing body.