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My Take on the Project 30 Report: Much Ado About Nothing
by: Weldon Johnson
February 10, 2008

Editor's Note: The USATF Project 30 Report came out on Monday to much fanfare. We at letsrun.com did not discuss the report with each other until we read it individually. We all individually came to the conclusion that their is not much substance in the report and very little in terms of substantiated facts. LetsRun.com's Wejo shares his thoughts on the report below.

Yesterday, USATF released it's Project 30 Report on High Performance. While I commend new CEO Doug Logan for trying to improve things, I think the report basically is a big ado about nothing.

I read the report and learned almost nothing new, thought it was totally anecdotal, and had no real hard evidence. Yet then I read Doug Logan's blog that the findings were "jarring and shocking" and saw the Washington Post's Amy Shipley (a journalist who we really respect) called it "a scathing report".

I totally disagree. (Editor's note: and so does Alberto Salazar who calls the report: "an overreaction to a couple of dropped batons")

Even taking the recommendations at face value, here is what the report says:

  • 1) Olympic coaches really are more like Olympic managers (and there needs to be a more transparent way to select these managers)
  • 2) The money spent on the relay program hasn't been that successful
  • 3) The Olympic Trials should be shortened
  • 4) Agents and show companies have too much influence
  • 5) Athletes aren't professional
  • 6) Actually they are too "professional" and racing too much in Europe
  • 7) USATF needs to do what Britain did and hire a performance manager
  • 8) Athletes need a union

The recommendations basically are a combination of what happens in Kenya and Britain after a bad Olympics. Blame the agents (Kenya) and hire a new performance manager (Britain).

Is There A Problem?

Before addressing the 8 recommendations one by one, we'll turn to a more important matter. What problem are we trying to solve? Is it the US having a "bad" Olympics? Perhaps. Some of the "hard" evidence reported is this: "Team USA is traditionally even more successful at World Championships than at Olympic Games." Hmmm. There is no evidence to support this, but even accepting it as true, the same system (except for the length of the Trials) selects the World Champs team as the Olympic Team.

So I don't think that is the problem they are trying to solve. There seems to be some emphasis on the fact that athletes aren't setting seasonal bests at the Olympics. Ok, I see that as possibly being an area we want to improve on. But the report gives no comparative statistics. It just mentions what percent of Americans set PRs in Beijing. This needs to be compared to real hard data, like how this compares to medal winners from other countries. We need to identify the problem before we try to fix it.

Instead we get hard facts like this: "In Athens in 2004, 10 of 60 American men posted seasonal bests to date in Athens (16.7%) while 9 of 49 women had SBs (18.4%). Although the number of women with SBs was actually slightly lower than Beijing, it is very significant that every American woman who won a medal in Athens posted a seasonal best in doing so. Ten of 16 male medalists (62.5%) had SBs in Athens." Okay ... What does this mean? The same exact system produced the results in Athens and Beijing. You can't compare the US performance in Beijing to that in Athens and say the system (which was the same) is the problem. The relevant comparison is to athletes in other countries who perhaps do things differently. If setting PRs at the big meet is a problem, then show the % of US athletes PRing at the Games versus the percent of other medal winners PRing. Then maybe I'll believe there is a problem. Instead, the evidence is totally anecdotal and based on a sample size of 1 (Beijing).

Okay, now onto the recommendations:

  • 1) Olympic coaches really are more like Olympic managers (and there needs to be a more transparent way to select these managers)
     -Ok, we already knew this. John McDonnell last year said, "you're basically a babysitter
     
  • 2) The money spent on the relay program hasn't been that successful
    I agree the money has been a waste (a third grader could coach the 4*400 men's team to gold) but I don't think 2 dropped batons means the US has a catastrophe on its hands. We swept all 4 medals in 2007. Having a more consistent team is probably a good idea and the nearly million dollars wasted on the program can be saved.
  • 3) The Olympic Trials should be shortened
    Perhaps. But I don't see how doubling over 4 days is less stressful on an athlete than doubling over 9 days. The extra days of rest between doubles may make things EASIER on athletes. There are a lot of wasted rounds at the Trials that could perhaps be scrapped and reduce a little wear and tear, but I don't see the need to have fewer athletes at the Trials or necessarily a shorter time period. One could just as easily argue that doubling over 4 days is much harder than doubling over 9. But once again, the evidence here is very anecdotal. How many athletes even try to double at the Trials anyway? How many extra rounds do they run? The report just takes for granted the extra days tire athletes out when it could just as easily help them.
I'll address the next three together:
  • 4) Agents and show companies have too much influence
  • 5) Athletes aren't professional
  • 6) Actually they are too "professional" and racing too much in Europe
These are what I'll dub the "Kenyan" excuse (blame the agents and shoe companies). Athletes need to take more control of their careers, but if you think an agent first and foremost doesn't want his or her athlete to win a gold medal at the Olympics, you are crazy. It is in everyone's self interest for this to happen. Last time I looked , Usain Bolt was racing in Europe before the Olympics and he did just fine. Racing in Europe may be a problem, but the report presents zero evidence besides a few anecdotes. As far as I know, getting race sharp in Europe could be beneficial. Instead of going on a hunch, how about trying to gather data on athletes who didn't race in Europe and how they did in Beijing compared to others (this may be hard to do because it seems like MOST top athletes throughout the world race in Europe before the Olympics).
  • 7) USATF needs to do what Britain did and hire a performance manager
    The report even suggests that this person maybe should be from outside of the sport. Funny, this is just what Britain did with Dave Collins, and they fired him after the 2008 Olympics because it didn't work. My anecdotal story isn't proof of anything and having a person in charge of performance probably is a good idea, but the US system is really a collection of free agent coaches.

But I suggest you read the report yourself and tell me what you think. I think you'll largely see it as a report with no hard evidence, many anecdotes, and it may even be trying to solve a problem we don't have. Can the US do a better job at the Olympics? Yes, of course, and it is commendable Doug Logan is looking for ways to change things.

But the "shocking" report has very little in terms of substance. Below are some of my favorite examples of "hard evidence" from the report:

  • "Sprints and hurdles are the most receptive to the application of sport science, while the distance events are most resistant to it." In one coach's words, "American distance runners and coaches focus almost exclusively on physiology and endurance training, while it is biomechanics that is the difference between winning a medal and not making a final."
    My comment- This is totally laughable. We're not on the medal stand in the 10k because we're nearly a minute behind the top guys and this isn't because the biomechanics are off.
  • "Sport scientists confirm this reticence on the part of most American distance coaches. (It should be noted that two of the most successful distance coaches in the last three years have been the two coaches most often cited as applying sports science and biomechanics. At least one of them consults regularly with sprint coaches to discuss and analyze the biomechanics of his runners.)"
    My comment: I'd love to know who the two coaches are. Two coaches get it I guess and everyone else is clueless according to the report thanks to this "scientific" study of 3. Shouldn't they tell us who the good coaches are if it is so obvious how to be a good coach?
  • "The Task Force found that the majority of athletes don't understand what it means to be a true professional."
    - What the hell does that mean?
    It's a slap in the face to all the athletes who work hard.
  • "One Task Force member often noted that these older athletes, if they haven't yet made it to the medal stand, 'need to get a real job.'" - So much for athletes trying to be "professional."
     

The committee members should be commended for their time and for taking a hard stance on performance-enhancing drugs. They proposed bans for cheats who do not rat out their network of dopers and issue an apology. And King Carl (Lewis) addressed an issue which perhaps we really should be looking at first, the declining popularity of the sport in the world. Carl said, "Anyone who thinks the sport is growing is delusional."

That perhaps is what we should be addressing. The rest of the report will have minimal impact on the sport.

*Read the USATF Report 

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