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Rojo's Take On The Project 30 Task Force Report
by Robert Johnson

Feb 11, 2009 - By now, you've probably heard that USATF CEO Doug Logan organized a task force that included Carl Lewis and Deena Kastor, among others, to analyze high-level track and field performance in America. The "Project 30 Task Force Report" came out on Monday. Let me start by saying that I think it was a good idea for a new CEO to look at high performance and I think it's great that people like Lewis, Kastor or former Olympic coach Mel Rosen would participate. That being said, it seems like some in the media and Logan himself are acting like this report is akin to the "Zapruder film" when in my mind it was far from it.

Logan, in his blog, said he found some of the findings are "jarring and shocking." I totally disagree. The only thing jarring and shocking was how unsubstantiated and anecdotal the report was. Bur rather than focus on the negative, I'll start with the aspects of the report that I agree with.

In my mind, the report has a few good suggestions in it to improve performance. I'll start by summarizing those in a few paragraphs as that's all it will take. I'm not sure why the report was 69 pages in length when it could be summarized in a few paragraphs.

1) Shorten the Olympic Trials.

It took Tyson Gay's injury for this to happen but I agree with this assumption. Unlike the report, I don't think it should go from 10 to 5 days. The extra days of rest may be beneficial to performance and I certainly don't agree that the number of competitors should be reduced as the Task Force suggested. I say shorten the trials while increasing the number of competitors.

I haven't figured out how many days it will take, but, unlike the report, I'll be very specific in my proposals. In general, it doesn't take a genius to realize that running rounds when hardly anyone is eliminated from a heat is utterly daft. If you are only eliminating a few people, you are doing two things: 1) Increasing the odds a star gets injured and 2) Boring the fans beyond reason. Shorten it up and there is less chance for injury but you also get the added bonus of making things more interesting for the crowd.

In my mind, the # of rounds should be cut in the sprints but the # of competitors should be increased. In the men's 200, they ran 4 rounds, to go from 30 to 24 to 16 to 8 and in the 100 they ran four rounds to go from 32 to 24 to 16 to 8. They should have 3 rounds and go from 32 to 16 to 8.

Similarly, in the 800, they need to put more people in the first round so there is some drama. In the 800, they went from 30 (three heats of 10) to 16 to 8. That was a special kind of stupid in my mind as championship 800s should always be run from lanes. Go from 32 (four heats of 8) to 16 to 8. In my mind, every event up through the 800 should have three rounds and it should go from 32 to 16 to 8. In the 1,500, go from 36 to 24 to 12 (or from 24 to 12) and in the 5k, go from 24 to 12 and in the 10k, just run 24.

2) There should be less official track and field coaches at the Olympics but someone needs to be publicly in charge of the 4 x 100. Additionally, the goal of the 4 x 100 should be to win and not get 6 people medals. If possible, everyone should run all the rounds (although I seem to be the only one who seems to realize that Usain Bolt didn't run the prelims of the 4 x 100 for Jamaica).

Official Team USA coaches aren't really needed at the Olympics as all of the individual athletes have their own coaches, so having an Olympic team coach is largely ceremonial. Managers are needed to make sure people get to where they need to be on time.

That being said, the one thing that is needed is to have one person who is publicly in charge of picking the 4 x 100 relay and getting them ready. This person needs to be transparent in what they are doing in picking the team. I agree with Mel Rosen that it's pretty easy to get a 4 x 100 to run well. I think all USATF needs to do is mandate that anyone who wants to be in the pool get together for a few days after the Trials and run a relay race as a team after a few days of practice.

The rest of the report has a few good ideas, like that of promoting an athletes' union and developing a stringent re-instatement program for ex-drug cheats to come back as coaches (although in my mind someone who is convicted of a drug offense from now on shouldn't be allowed to ever coach, period). However, I don't really see what either of these things has to do with increasing Team USA's performance at the Olympics.

Now I'll turn critical.

1) The whole notion of Project 30 is a flawed one and setting the sport of track and field up to be viewed as a failure. Where did the number 30 for medals come from? It's a stupid goal. The press is bound to use it as the barometer of success and our performance in 2012 may once again falsely be viewed as a failure.

In my mind, the whole medal count idea is a flawed one to begin with. Does track and field really want to follow the China model and go for medals in obscure events like the Chinese do in obscure sports? That's where it seems like we're headed as the report and Deena Kastor correctly realize that the "technical events" are where we could really improve, but let's be honest, those are the least popular part of the sport. Winning more medals there isn't going to return track and field to its glory days of popularity.

Does the Task Force and Mr. Logan realize that China won the gold medal count in Beijing in 2008 but no one in America really cared because most of China's medals were in sports we don't care about?

Let's say that in 2012, the US gets the same medal count that we had in 2008 except we also sweep the top three in all four of the race-walking events. Instantly, we go from 7 to 11 golds and from 23 to 35 medals. Project 30 has succeeded and track is probably more unpopular than ever. Focusing on medal counts is therefore a stupid goal.

The fact of the matter is the average person doesn't care if the US won 23 or 21 medals. They follow the Olympics for the inspirational stories of triumph - whether it's Billy Mills, Carl Lewis, Michael Johnson or Usain Bolt - and the poignant stories of disappointment - whether it's Mary Slaney, Tyson Gay, Gail Devers or Lolo Jones. The reality is that the US has just 4.5% of the world's population and yet we won nearly 16% of the track and field medals. We're doing damn well if I don't say so myself and I miss former head of USATF Craig Masback's positive outlook on things.

2) In my mind, the media, and the public and Task Force should reject Logan's assumption that there was a huge systemic failure to begin with in Beijing because it's simply not true. Were their disappointments and mistakes made? Yes. Can the US do better? Yes. Was our performance in Beijing unacceptable? Absolutely not.

If you read the report closely enough, the report basically invalidates the notion of a failure in Beijing even if the Task Force doesn't acknowledge this fact. On page 31 the whole notion of a Beijing failure is basically rejected by the following statement: "The diversity of competition on the international level has increased substantially in the last 20 years. Despite this, Team USA has increased its medal counts in World Championship and Olympic competition. American medal counts never reached higher than 20 from 1997 through 2003, but starting in 2004, medal counts have ranged from 23 to 26."

Competition has gotten way stiffer over the years but Team USA is still doing amazing. The report correctly points out that in 1976 only 20 different countries won medals in track and field and not a single medal was won by an African country in track and field whereas in 2008, 42 different countries won track and field medals (Editor's Note: 27 African countries plus Iraq boycotted in 1976 which the report and Rojo failed to mention). What the report doesn't point out is that in 1976, the US had a powerhouse team that featured all-time greats such as Frank Shorter, Bruce Jenner, Dwight Stones and Edwin Moses.

How many medals did the USA win way back in its glory days in the midst of the Cold War in 1976? 22 - with 6 being gold. That's one less total medal and one less gold than 2008. Admittedly, there were a few less women's events back then (no steeple, 5k, 10k, marathon or pole vault), but you get the point - there was no systemic failure in Beijing.

3) In my mind, a huge flaw in the report is that it largely ignores the role genetics and luck/chance play in the most global of sports. I can only imagine if Jamaica issued a similar report entitled "Project 20," which outlined their goal of 20 medals at the 2012 Games and analyzed how their "talent identification and systemic athlete development" in the distance events is totally lacking.

The report does talk at times about chance but not in a substantial way. The report and mainstream media may be willing to overlook the following fact but I will not pull the wool over my eyes:

The report points out that at both the 2005 and 2007 worlds, the US had unbelievably good showings and won twice as many gold medals as it did in 2008, but the report doesn't realize how that fact alone has huge ramifications on many of its broad assumptions about what went wrong in Beijing, which brings me to perhaps my most important rebuttal.

If something with the US system or in the planning for Beijing was terribly flawed, then please tell me what changed between 2007 Osaka and 2008 Beijing. I'll tell you: absolutely nothing. It's called sport and sh*t simply happens.

Whether the report wants to admit it or not, random chance is a big factor in the outcome at these global events. Again, please tell me what changed between 2005 and 2007. Absolutely nothing.

The media isn't smart enough to realize this and they are just accepting the report and the statements by the Task Force members at face value. Carl Lewis, who is one of our all-time favorite athletes (I have a signed photo of him in my office), may have told the AP, "We're headed toward having single digits in the next few Olympics if we don't make the changes," but the facts simply don't support that assertion.

Conclusion: I am glad to see that so many people and past stars care about the sport. I am glad the report got done and hopefully it will prompt a few simple, straightforward changes to be adopted (reduce a round of the sprints, have a relay coach and mandate that the team practice prior to going to the Olympics). Other than that, I don't ever want to hear about this report again as it was your typical bureaucratic report - full of anecdotes and unsubstantiated, false claims. Yet another attempt for bureaucrats to justify their jobs as there wasn't a major problem in Beijing other than that of public perception of the US's performance.

I really, really hope USATF (and UK athletics for that matter and Athletics Kenya and all federations) understands that its administrators don't have as much of a role as they think in the country winning track and field medals.

Don't believe me?

Imagine if Tyson Gay stays healthy and Usain Bolt got injured ... then this report is never issued. In case people have forgotten, Gay has run the fastest 100 in history - 9.68. Yes, it was wind-aided but it's still damn impressive. The US probably wins the 100m, 200m and maybe the 4 x 100. We have Gay as the global star and track and field is big again for a short period of time. Instead, he gets hurt and people want to look for explanations.

Genetics and chance play a big role in all of this. The fact of the matter is USATF had as much to do with Walter Dix's two medals in Beijing as it did with Richard Thompson's two sprint medals. Which is to say, "Nothing." Both were produced by the non-USATF system. They were produced by the college system. One just happens to represent Trinidad & Tobago in the Olympics.

PS. Mr. Logan, if you really want to win 30 track and field medals, I have an easy answer for you. Your task force is onto something about the technical events. Raise a ton of money and offer $5 million for any NFL/NBA player that wins an Olympic medal. You almost certainly could get someone in the NFL to win a throwing medal and there are probably a few sprint/jump medals out there as well. In the US, the big guys go to the NFL. In Europe, they go to track as they can't play soccer.

Money will certainly solve a lot of problems about medals in the technical events.

PPS. Below I list four more criticisms of the actual report itself but figure you really wouldn't want to read it. Considering that in my mind the whole premise of the report is false to begin with, any criticisms with the specifics of the way the report was written aren't really that important.

Editor's Note: Robert Johnson, a.k.a. "Rojo", is best known for being the co-founder of LetsRrun.com as well as the men's distance coach at Cornell University. A former high school math teacher, Robert has covered track and field for The Washington Post. Comments? Please email Robert.

4) The report was way, way, way too anecdotal in nature. The report seemingly looked at the so-called failures in Beijing and then looked for anything that could be possibly used as an explanations for the failures. It was laughable really how in events where the US didn't medal, the report assumes there are huge problems, but in areas where we do medal, everything is fine. This makes no sense as the same system is in place in both areas.

For example, take this excerpt from page 36 of the report:

"Sprints and hurdles have always been a strong suit of Americans, and despite some high profile disappointments in Beijing, medal tallies are still robust. (Note sweeps in Beijing the men’s 400 and 400 hurdles; two medals in the 110m hurdles; medals in both women's hurdle events, etc). Success in the high jump and vertical jumps have been inconsistent at best. The talent is there, but the Task Force believes that training, talent identification and systematic athlete development is lacking. One prominent high jump coach noted flatly that American high jumpers as a group simply do not train hard enough or focus enough on strength training."

If you take at face value the report's belief that the talent is there in the high jump, this paragraph basically says that we don't win HJump medals because the "talent identification and systematic athlete development is lacking." But a logical conclusion of this type of thinking then is that the "talent identification and systematic athlete development" in the areas where we do win (sprints and hurdles) is working, but that can't be the case because the system is exactly the same in both events.

Please tell me why the system is working in the sprints and hurdles but not the HJ. Please tell me why HJumpers aren't training right but other event groups are. It's laughable really to think about the logic involved in that last sentence about the high jump.

The whole report is full of anecdote after anecdote that prove absolutely nothing. For example, the report says, "For instance, Stephanie Brown-Trafton did not have personal coach access in Beijing and did not expect any special treatment. She won the first gold medal in the women’s discus since 1932. Similarly, Walter Dix's personal coach was not on hand at the stadium, yet he was the most successful American short sprinter at the Games." From this logic, it's almost as if not having your access to your coach is a positive thing.

Similarly, the report points out that the US relay team didn't have it's bib numbers, which in turn caused one of the athlete's to cry as they had to hand-write bib numbers. The US then dropped the stick. So what? I'll be the first to admit that not having the bib numbers was embarrassing but anecdotes prove absolutely nothing. It could just be just as likely that being stressed about the bibs might help one's performance as it would take their minds off of the pressure of the moment.

After reading unproven anecdote after anecdote, I half expected to see a recommendation that US sprinters eat chicken McNuggets prior to competition as that's what Usain Bolt did before setting his world records.

5) The report glaringly fails to use a base level of comparative statistics to back up many of its assertions.

The report's lack of comparative statistics was in my mind shocking even though the report claims to use such statistics. One of the most "jarring and shocking" aspects of the report in my mind was the following statement:

"Based on statistical analysis, it seems that too many athletes 'left it on the track' at the Olympic Trials, from the vertical and horizontal jumps to the 800 and 100 meters."

If this was a college research paper, the professor would probably give the person turning it in a poor grade as nothing was backed up with any facts. But even if they had the comparative stats to prove this point, please tell me what has changed that caused this to happen in 2008 in the long jump but not in 1988 or 1998 when we swept the men's long jump or in 2004 when we got the gold and silver.

OK, the report did include some statistics, but they weren't valid comparative statistics. For example, the report stated that in Beijing, "In the instance of men, only seven performances out of 66 were their best performance for the year (10.6%) while the women had 11 out of 65 performances (16.9%) that were their best of the year." This stat is worthless in our mind. How does that compare to other countries? Please tell me.

The only real stats the report did include were 5 pages in an the appendix that showed the European competition schedule of select "US Olympians." We're not sure why they wouldn't do all Olympians or why the even included the stats are they largely invalidated the #4 assumption of the report that "Excessive travel and poor long-term planning on the part of athletes, their coaches and agents appear to be the greatest controllable factors negatively affecting Team USA performance in Beijing." The report made that assumption on page two of the Executive Summary, yet the facts discount it as well as from what I can tell 14 of the 17 individual US medallists competed in Europe after the Trials.

I raised this point with USATF on the call and they went out of their way to point out to us that we had misread the report. In reality, I didn't, but they are saying that European competition is bad only if it's not planned out way in advance. Well, I'm sure most - if not all - athletes have a rough idea they'll go to Europe if they make the Olympics. The specifics can't be 100% known for anyone except the big stars as people have no idea what meets they'll get into.

Moreover, I find it ludicrous that seemingly all federations, whether they be Kenyan, the US or the UK, seem to imply that going to Europe is a bad thing. Does the NFL want Kurt Warner to skip the regular season and only play in the Super Bowl? Track and field needs people to race more often. If the Olympics are the only meet that matters, then how are you going to convince people to pay to see the few other pro track meets?

6) The report contradicts itself in a number of instances.

For example, to come up with an explanation for a dropped baton in the 4 x 100 relay, the report states that one of the runners in the prelims asked if he would be running in the final and he was told, "I don't know." That response put him "on edge," which was offered as a possible reason for the team not getting the baton around.

Yet later, the report states that the "independent-minded athletes" like Walter Dix, who can "'roll with the punches' and make decisions for themselves are best prepared for the Olympic Games and its specific, off-track challenges."

Additionally, a few statements on the conference call aren't necessarily supported out by the facts. For example, former Olympic coach Mel Rosen, who coached the US to 4 x 100 gold, said picking the relay should be easy and I agree. He said you put the best guy on the anchor. I agree for the most part, but Jamaica didn't do that. Similarly, Carl Lewis said he ran all of the rounds of his 4 x 100s as he didn't want someone else dropping the stick. I think this is the way to go but, once again, Jamaica got away with doing exactly that as Bolt didn't run the prelims.

7) I found it odd that the whole assumption of the report seems to be that administrators and coaches can help US athletes win more medals but the one thing the report doesn't do is recommend that USATF or the USOC pressure the IOC to let the athletes at the Games have access to their personal coaches at the Olympics.

The report acts like getting a coaching "P" pass for every coach is impossible. Admittedly, I haven't researched this, but to us, this could be one explanation for a lower medal count at the Olympics versus the world champs. It's probably harder to get a coach's pass for the Olympics as compared to the world champs but other countries which have fewer Olympians probably are able to give more of their individual coaches passes.

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