I was just watching the movie, “Remember the Titans” tonight… It is based on a true story that had happened back in 1971. In this movie, there is a scene where the local football governing body pressures the coach and made the officials to cheat, knowingly, to make it difficult for the “Titans” to win the football game. You would think, over more than 40 years later, we have moved on… Unfortunately, what happened over the past weekend at the USA Indoor Track & Field Championships demonstrated otherwise.
When Greg McMillan was forming McMillan Elite team in Flagstaff, he sought advice from the legendary Coach Joe Vigil. “It would have to be athletes-centered, coach-driven and administratively supported,” he said. Very wise advice from a very wise man. Not that there is money to be made at the top there are those who stand to benefit from it financially. “No buck, no Buck Rogers.” Trust me, we know!! However, the money should never control the sport. As Vigil said it needs to always be “athletes-centered,” or it loses its core. The sport of running, or track & field, is very straight forward; the result is not complicated. It is to see who’s the fastest, or who can throw or jump furthest, within the set rules.
Last weekend, the US Indoor Championships were held in Albuquerque, NM. In women’s 3000m, Gabby Grunewald won it convincingly from 2009 World Championships 1500m silver medalist, Shannon Rowbury. As many of the readers already know, Grunewald is a cancer-survivor. A former University of Minnesota stand-out, she had advanced to become a professional runner and joined Team USA Minnesota. Under the guidance of the accomplished coach, Denis Barker, who guided the likes of Carrie Tollefson, Katie McGregor and Jason Luhmkuhle, Grunewald developed nicely over the next couple of years into an international contender. As a fellow Minnesotan, nothing would have been more pleasing to write the blog headline of “Team USA MN’s Grunewald wins!!” Although she crossed the line first I could not write that, at first. What followed was totally NOT athletes-centered or administratively-supported.
Nobody at this point knows for sure what happened and how it happened — and this in fact IS an unfortunate reality. There are literally hundreds of blogs and message board threads explaining stories, most of which are nothing more than a speculation and an opinion; and I have no intention of adding one more. But I would like to link this article by Wall Street Journal (while I have specifically mentioned in other blogs that I would not refer WSJ for training, in this particular case, this might be actually a better one because it is not an athletic-oriented view and therefore more straightforward and not emotionally biased. I also refer to this open letter from Mark Wieczorek, a professional runner himself, to a very popular and vocal message board, letsrun.com because it really hits home. Here’s the chain of events: Gabby Grunewald won, Shannon Rowberry a distant second. A protest was made by Rowberry’s coach, Alberto Salazar. The protest was declined.The should have been the end of it. But an appeal was lodged and the protest was upheld. Grunewald was disqualified and Rowberry declared the winner. After an uproar from many sides the disqualification was nullified and the original results reinstated.
Here’s what does not make sense: (1) After the initial rulings a DQ could only have happened due to new and conclusive evidence. Yet it seems that nobody, including Grunewald herself and her coach/agent, know what that evidence is; and (2) So let’s assume that there is new and conclusive evidence and it is legit the DQ should have stood, regardless of Jordan Hasay backing down from the appeal (which, by the way, was a classy act on her part). According to the rules both cannot happen — but they did. So it very much appears that some wrong-doing took place. In fact, it wasn’t just with the case with Grunewald but the same “unjust” DQ happened to another runner, Andrew Bumbalough, in the men’s 3000m race (and, at the time of writing, his case has not been resolved). And probably the most unfortunate thing of all is that it was done by the sport’s governing body whose role is to uphold their own rules and, one would hope, to help the sport to grow. If they engage in assisting sponsors to manipulate and monopolize the prizes by means other than their runners fairly winning them, then they have lost the plot and need an overhaul.
Grunewald’s victory celebration was unjustly ruined by the very organization that was supposed to protect athletes. This day and age, when we speak very loudly against PED, this is basically the same thing – her celebration was robbed unfairly. She was so devastated that she could not start the 1500m the day after. While Mary Cain looked quite invincible, who knows if Grunewald could have given her one hell of a race? Basically, nobody would ever know because her chance to prove it was taken away from her. This is supposed to be the best day of her life athletically (so far). And it turned out to be just a bitter-sweet experience at best. Again, this was done by the governing body that is supposed to “support” the athletes. And it seems quite apparent (but still nothing more than speculation at this point) that the governing body was bullied into this wrong-doing by the biggest financial sponsor of the event.
I had the privilege of getting to know Christopher McDougal, the author of “Born to Run”, a couple of years ago. I introduced myself as the Executive Director of Lydiard Foundation (I guess I have since been promoted…). He was quite keen on talking with me particularly because I told him that I personally knew not only Arthur Lydiard, but also Bill Bowerman. In his book, he had portrayed Lydiard as a good guy, who always advocated minimalist shoes, and Bowerman as a bad guy because he had started Nike which led the running shoes to get bulkier and bulkier. “That’s not quite accurate,” I told him. “That surely wasn’t Bowerman’s intention at all. Making money was probably the last thing he had on his agenda…” To Bowerman, making good shoes came first, and the shoe giant followed; not the other way around. You cannot be a great coach as Bowerman was and not put athletes’ best interest first. He cared. He cared for athletes and he cared for the sport. There is absolutely NO question about that. Building headquarters on the street named after the founder, or putting a silhouette of him on their shoes, doesn’t necessarily seem to mean Nike upholds the legacy and the very spirit of the great man. In fact, I have a letter from Bowerman that I received back in 1996. I had the idea of introducing the Japanese-style corporate sponsored team concept and I wanted to talk to Bill about it. “I don’t like the direction Nike is heading,” he wrote… Wonder what he would think if he was alive today…???
There is a story Arthur always liked to tell. At Munich Olympic Games in 1972 where Finland won 3 gold medals in the middle and long distance events, Swedish and Norwegian team managers asked Finnish team manager why they were so successful; “Our 3 teams are much the same size,” they claimed. The Finnish manager replied: “We have the same number of runners and the same number of officials. But your team have seven managers and one coach; we have seven coaches and one manager…” Coaches are the ones who develop athletes. Athletes run; coaches develop athletes and programs. And administrators support athletes and coaches. If officials, or sponsors, start to control the sport, that’s when the sport very quickly deteriorates. And it has. We are very happy for Gabby for her first national title to represent the US for the first time in her professional athletic career. But this story should not be closed. The story should not just be whether or not Grunewald fouled or not (* incidentally, in my personal opinion, NO WAY there should have a DQ to begin with and, that, the governing body’s first decision, and its process, was right-on): but to get down to the core of what really had happened for the officials to act so inconsistently. And this is far from over; this is just the beginning