The Running High: A History of Corruption and Controversy Part II
When looking back at the history of our sport, I came across one event, one detail that seems to have shaped our sport domestically more than any other event in recent history.
You always hear about athletes like Steve Prefontaine and Frank Shorter who protested and fought against the tyranny of the AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) in the 1970’s, but you rarely hear of what came of these protests.
You know that the USATF, not the AAU, is the official governing body of track and field. And you know that they now have the power to hold National Championships, select international teams, and lay down sanctions on athletes.
But how did they get that power? Where did the authority come from?
It all started in 1972 (well it started waaaaaaaaaaaay before that, but for the sake of brevity, let’s pick up the story in 1972).
The 1972 Munich Olympics were known for many things. For most people, it was the massacre of Israeli athletes which is most remembered.
Some remember it was Steve Prefontaine’s only Olympics. They remember his epic bid for gold from a mile out, and his failure to obtain a medal of any color.
What most people DON’T remember, is that there were a host of other controversies associated with the U.S. team throughout these games.
1.) The top two U.S. sprinters, both heavy medal favorites, (Rey Robinson and Eddie Hart) were given wrong information as to what time their qualifying heats were, and therefore missed their heats and didn’t qualify.
2.) In what’s been called the most controversial international basketball game of all time, the U.S. Men’s Basketball team won the gold medal game 50-49, than because of confusing signals from the referee’s table, the final three seconds were replayed two more times, to the tune of the Soviets winning 51-49. The U.S. officials were blamed for not appealing correctly over the calls made by the officials, and the U.S. never accepted their silver medal from the games.
3.) In comparison to the U.S. team, the squad that took home the most medals (the Soviets), looked much more organized, and much more competent than the United States.
You take this, and combine it with the accusations of cronyism, corruption, incompetence, and a lack of concern for the well being of the athletes (sounds familiar) that had been thrown at the AAU and USOC for years, and you have a cocktail that is ripe for change.
Than after the NCAA pulls out of the USOC, and refuses to cooperate, unless Congress agrees to step in and restructure.
Jimmy Carter to the Rescue.
In 1975, amid all of this drama, then President Jimmy Carter appoints the Presidents Committee on Olympic Sports (PCOS). The job of the PCOS was to make recommendations as to what is to be done about the current state of the USOC and AAU.
The PCOS found that the amateur sports efforts in the U.S. were unorganized and fragmented. They wasted valuable time and money on figuring out who had jurisdiction over what athletes, and it was sometimes unclear which organization had jurisdiction over which sport.
The PCOS made recommendations to Congress, and out of those recommendations came the foundations for the Amateur Sports Act of 1978. Out of that act came the USOC and USATF that we know today.
What does the Act do?
In a nutshell, the Amateur Sports Act of 1978 created the framework for for the bylaws and constitution of our governing bodies.
1.)Provides a place of business for the USOC
2.) Lays down the objectives and purposes of the USOC
3.) Sets forth the powers of the USOC
4.) Provides for eligibility and reasonable representation in the USOC of amateur sports, organizations, amateur athletes, and members of the public.
5.) States that the Olympic designation cannot be used without authority.
6.) Requires the USOC to submit a detailed yearly report of its operations to the President and Congress.
7.) Requires the USOC to establish provisions to resolve disputes.
Here are some very interesting ones:
– Authorizes the USOC to recognize any amateur sports organization as the National Governing Body (NGB), as long as they submit an applications and meet all necessary requirements.
– Sets forth the following principles: Processing a complaint against a NGB by individual athlete, or amateur sports organization. It also allows the USOC to revoke recognition of a NGB and to replace that NGB.
What Does this All Mean?
So after slogging through all the legislative nonsense, what can we make of this? It seems to me that we’ve come full circle. The legislation and reform came out of controversy, unclear communication, and incompetence. Something that hits home when you think of the recent incidents.
The USATF claims to be putting together a group to look further into the things that happened at the USATF Indoor Championships, but we’re a month out from that controversy, and it seems that bureaucracy is just dragging its feet.
The precedents for change are laid out clearly by the legislation. Maybe it’s time for real, lasting, change.
What similarities do you see between the 1972 controversies and current ones? What can the athletes do to change the way the USATF does business?
(Nick Hilton is a manager at Run Flagstaff in Flagstaff, Arizona where he trains as a professional distance runner. He is a 2016 Olympic Marathon Trials qualifier, and a member of Team Run Flagstaff Pro. He competes in distances ranging from the mile to the marathon. Follow him on Twitter: @Nackhilton and on his personal blog: The Moderately Talented Distance Runner)