USA Track & Field Will Do Whatever It Damn Well Wants

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It's been over nine months since Andrew Bumbalough, a spindly runner from Tennessee, was disqualified from the 2014 USA Indoor Championships after officials misidentified him for another athlete. On Friday evening, USA Track & Field's Board of Directors issued a statement that they had voted to reinstate the athlete's eighth-place finish.


"Learning from our mistakes and correcting them when and where we can is key to continuing to improve our sport," said USATF Chair and President Stephanie Hightower in the release.

But this isn't true. With its reinstatement of Bumbalough, the national governing body has remained staunchly committed to its bad habit of making rules up as it goes along while its athletes remain powerless to have their voices heard. It is business as usual.

Bumbalough's reinstatement was achieved only by USATF making an official ruling outside of its own laws. Neither in USATF's 2014 Governance Handbook nor in its Competition Rules is the Board granted the power to vote on such a decision. The Board's abilities are spelled out clearly in Article 11:

1. Establish policies to enable USATF to achieve its purposes and perform its duties;

2. Govern and supervise USATF's affairs and perform those duties specified in these Bylaws and the Operating Regulations;

3. Recommend, approve, and oversee all USATF committee programs;

4. Oversee National Office Management;

5. Provide for annual independent audits of USATF and its committees;

6. Approve USATF's annual budgets; and

7. Act as USATF's fiduciary for its financial affairs.

Bumbalough's reinstatement, at face value, seems encouraging: USATF has finally corrected a mistake it made nine months ago. But the fact that USATF was only able to levy justice by going outside of its rules should be disconcerting to any athlete that believes he or she can trust USATF and its rules. USATF failed Bumbalough in February and continues to fail him when they offer no in-bounds method of correcting an incorrect ruling.

This isn't the first time USATF has veered outside of its competition rules to make a correction. It was the same in the Gabe Grunewald case. Grunewald was reinstated as a U.S. 3000-meter champion only after the protesting party withdrew the protest. There are no rules allowing the withdrawing of a protest. It was merely a convenient way of letting USATF out of a PR black eye.


USATF's problems begin with situations involving either vague or unspecified areas in its competition guidelines. The famous "dead heat" at the 2012 Olympic Team Trials was the result of USATF not having a policy in place for a tie. The Grunewald situation was borne from the malleable definition of what "new conclusive evidence" means. When rules are ambiguous, USATF's rulings are either controversial—Grunewald—or embarrassing—the Tarmoh/Felix dead heat, which was to be decided by a coin toss. In its release on the Bumbalough reinstatement, USATF said that it had "adopted a new rule that will enable the Games Commission to take action on clear errors." Rule 158 will hopefully prevent Bumbalough's unique situation from happening again to another athlete. But it does nothing to prevent USATF's arbitrary decisions from affecting the livelihood of its athletes.

The one solution USATF has yet to consider is listening to what its athletes want. It and its board of directors have remained convinced that it solely knows what's best, whether it's signing a 26-year sponsorship deal with Nike without consulting the athletes it affects or overruling its own Long Distance Running Division Executive Committee on the best site for an Olympic Trials. Its athletes want one thing, USATF wants another, and never the two shall meet.


On Friday, USATF athletes and representatives assembled for the Annual Meeting in Anaheim. They were encouraged to unify after a year of distrust. Then the USATF Board voted 11 to 1 to select President and Chair Stephanie Hightower, overruling its members's vote of 392 to 70 to retain a 20-year veteran USATF representative to the IAAF council. In one swift cut, USATF reaffirmed that its athletes' voices are collectively worthless.

"We take the vote of our membership very seriously and respect it," said USATF board vice chair Steve Miller of the decision, but added, "Stephanie is a new-era person . . . this is a different era and a different time."


"It's a great example of how little USATF (has) recognized athletes' voices actually matter and how little faith the athletes should have in the 'governance' process," Adam Nelson, president of Track & Field Athletes Association, told me on Saturday.

Even USATF's public relations strategy suggests a desire to quash dissent. The Albuquerque Working Group's report, commissioned by USATF to find out what happened in February, was released on the afternoon of July 3, paired closely with the holiday weekend to receive the least amount of outcry. The reinstatement of Bumbalough was tweeted by USATF at 3:58 p.m. on Friday.


As 2014 draws to a close, the frustration of U.S. athletes that once burned so hot in February has been crushed under weight of the USATF bureaucracy. Their voices are ignored; their plight is dismissed for some promised land that only USATF can see.

"I arrived at the meeting skeptical, day one of the meeting I felt semi-optimistic, and now I feel like so many others like it's all pointless," wrote former U.S. champion Lauren Fleshman after the weekend. "We can't really affect change from within the organization . . . I'm tired of putting logs on a fire that doesn't consistently burn. One moment I want to change the world and the next moment I just want to look out for myself. And that is the challenge of the professional track and field athlete."


Photo: Chaffee