USATF's Decision To Not Offer Altitude Adjustments For Performances At USA Indoors Is Raising Ire In Mid-d and Distance Circles


February 24, 2010 - This weekend the 2010 USATF Indoor Track and Field championships will take place for the first time since 1966 in Albuquerque, New Mexico – the first year of a three year run in Albuquerque which is situated at 4.958 feet of altitude.

While having USA indoors at a new site for the first time since 2002 (from 2003 to 2009 they were held in Boston) might be expected to raise excitement for the meet, it’s also raising ire against USATF in terms of the middle distance and distance community because USATF has recently announced that there will be no adjustments made to the scoring tables used to determine the winner of the Visa Championship Series.

Editor's note: The Visa Championship Series is a series of nationally televised pro meets in the US. This year with the loss of the indoor Tyson Invitational, this series is down to 3 meets indoors: Millrose Games, Reebok Boston and USATF indoors. The USATF website does not show any meets this year outdoors being a part of the Visa Series. The top US pro meets, Prefontaine, and the renamed New York Adidas Track Classic are part of the newly created IAAF Diamond League. The other big pro meet in the US, the meet at the Home Depot Center in Los Angeles, is not taking place this year.

According to the rules, the top American finisher in each event of the Visa Championship Series has their best performance “assigned a point total based on the IAAF Scoring Tables of Athletics. The athlete whose performance has the highest point total at the end of the Visa Championship Series will be named the Visa Champion” and given $30,000. 2nd place receives $15,000 and third $5,000. The payments apply to both sexes so there are three male winners and three female winners.

It is a well known fact that altitude greatly hinders middle distance and distance performances yet USATF has recently made the decision to not allow for altitude adjustments for Visa Championship scoring. On Wednesday, USATF head Doug Logan issued a statement on the matter that read in part:

    "International standards set by the IAAF do not take into account altitude adjustments for scoring tables, records or rankings. That will hold true for the USA Indoor Championships as well, given that the scoring for the Visa Championship Series uses official IAAF tables. Rather than arbitrarily make an adjustment based on nothing more than a guess, which would result in vast inequities in the tables, it is far more fair to have athletes compete and have their performances compared as they always are.

    I can assure you that well before our sport committee chairs approved awarding the Indoor Championships to Albuquerque, the relatively moderate altitude of the site was discussed extensively by USATF staff, with input from coaches and members of the sports science and sports medicine communities as well." (emphasis added by LRC)

For the past few weeks, coaches and agents have recently been involved in lobbying USATF for an altitude adjustment because despite what Doug Logan says, Albuquerque’s 4,958 feet of elevation is not considered to be “relatively moderate altitude” by exercise physiologists. In terms of qualifying for the NCAA D1 track and field indoor championships, performances in Albuquerque are given significant altitude adjustments. Men are given 5.32 seconds for the mile and 11.98 seconds for the 3k while women get 6.17 seconds in the mile and 13.97 seconds in the 3k (Altitude Adjustments For NCAA Qualifying For 2010).

Leading the charge for altitude adjustments has been John Cook, coach of Shannon Rowbury, who currently leads the Visa Championship Series women’s point standings thanks to her 8:47.18 3k achieved at the Reebok Boston Indoor Games.

“At altitude, you aren’t going to run good times if you are a distance runner– that’s like breathing through a straw. But the sprinters are going to come to altitude and they are going to rock. It’s a huge advantage (to sprint at altitude), “ Cook told on a phone interview on Tuesday morning before Doug Logan issued his release formally announcing there would be no altitude adjustment.

“Everyone I’ve talked to at USATF agrees with me and says we need to make changes, then they say don’t know how to do (the altitude adjustment). Well there are books out there. There is a green book out there. There is an IAAF book out there,” said Cook. “I’m not the smartest guy in the world but I can figure this out. And if I can figure it out, everyone can."

During a half hour interview with, Cook went on to complain about other aspects of the Visa Championship Series. Currently, an athlete is only judged on their single best performance and an athlete only has to compete at USAs to win the meet. Cook thinks if the point is of the Series is to promote track and field in America that an athlete should have to compete in more than one event to be eligible to win the series:

    "Why do they call it the Visa series if there is no series. Why don’t they call it the Visa jackpot?"

    "I would bet one month's salary that a sprinter is going to come in and out of nowhere, someone who probably hasn’t run in this country the entire winter, come in and win this thing because of the one performance thing. There is no way in hell that a distance runner is going to prove anything at altitude."

    "If you are going to promote American track and field, which I would think would be the intent, I would think these people should be required to run some of these meets  - maybe two out of three. (In Nascar), Jimmy Johnson has to drive. In tennis, Serena Williams has to play. (Why not in track as well)?"

One of the problems with requiring athletes to compete in more than one event is the fact that many events aren't offered at the three meets that form the USATF Visa Series. For example, at both Millrose and Reebok Boston, no horizontal jumps were offered.

Cook isn't the only one advocating for USATF to make an altitude adjustment. One prominent agent who wishes to remain anonymous has also tried to sway USATF on the matter. The agent wrote the following in an email:

    "Of course, comparing performances across disciplines is never going to be perfectly "fair", but that's not important. What is important is that there is a semblance of fairness (and in the interest of full disclosure, I recognize that some events, such as the horizontal jumps, were not a part of Millrose or Boston, and so Nationals is their only opportunity)."

    "In an ideal world, an altitude adjustment would be given for all performances (time added for sprints/hurdles, time subtracted for longer races), but we don't want to make it seem like we're penalizing sprinters. All we're asking is that the NCAA altitude adjustments for Albuquerque (also attached) be applied."

Additionally, has seen an email that another prominent distance coach, who wishes to remain anonymous, wrote to USATF where the coach stated that it's a matter of science that altitude will effect performance in Albuquerque.

    "To say that Albuquerque, situated at approximately 5200ft elevation, will have little or no effect on any event above 1500m for men and 800m for women is simply preposterous. Any physiologist that would say to the contrary would not earn their degree and would probably lose their job for such misinformation."

More information on the 2010 USATF Meet can be found at the meet website here.

More discussion:
*USATF Says no to altitude conversions
*Various Questions on the 2010 Track Calendar: Diamond League, 2 US Meets Gone, Berlin & More



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