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Masback discusses future of U.S. athletics

31 January 2007

By Dave Ungrady

The U.S. track and field indoor season, which opened last weekend in Boston, continues this weekend with the 100th edition of the Millrose Games in New York City. With a history that juxtaposes gold medals with cases of doping, U.S. athletics has had its share of ups and downs. Dave Ungrady of WCSN.com discussed the past, present and future of American athletics with USA Track & Field CEO Craig Masback.

DU: In your State of Sport address, you said that 2006 was a year of hope and humility, a year of progress and punishment, and a year of accomplishment and agony. Can you be more specific?

CM: The year in the middle of the Olympic cycle -- two years after one Olympics and two years before the next -- is always a tough year for our sport. We had a great year in 2005 with our dominant performance of the world championship in Helsinki, winning 14 gold medals -- the most ever in world championship history. Two thousand six was going to focus on continuing the momentum created with the Athens Olympic and the 2005 performances and really try to bridge 2007, the year that includes an outdoor world championship in Japan and generates interest as we got closer to the Beijing Olympics. All of that went according to plan and, on almost every metric, we were better than ever. But we did have notification about a positive doping test for one of our signature athletes, Justin Gatlin. That case, which is yet to be fully reviewed and finalized, really was a setback for us because Gatlin was one of those young athletes we were pinning our hopes on for 2008.

DU: Marion Jones also tested positive for drugs.

CM: I don't mention the Jones case because, as should have happened, her B sample was tested and she was exonerated and never formally charged because the B did not confirm the A. If the system had worked the way it was supposed to, no one ever would have known about that positive test.

DU: Gatlin's positive test needs to be adjudicated, but it looks like he is going to be out of track and field unless something happens. How does that affect the sport?

CM: The mere existence of the case was definitely a blow for us. He was one of the leading spokespeople among athletes on the drugs and sports issues. To have someone like him so high profile test positive undermines everything we were doing. Now our reaction to that has been both swift and strong. We doubled our efforts under what we call our zero-tolerance plan. We are actively and continuously lobbying for stricter anti-doping penalties at the international level.

DU: How do you balance the rights of athletes while trying to rid the sports of drug abusers?

CM: The best way to protect the rights of athletes is to create circumstances where they can compete without having to think about whether someone else is getting an edge. You can't abandon cherished American rights, but there are points at which you have got to turn the balance in such a way that the drug testing authorities can actually catch people as opposed to having it always so strictly in favor of the athlete [that] you can never catch and prosecute someone. And I think we missed that. Now that we're fully part of [the World Anti-Doping Agency and the U.S. Anti- Doping Agency].

DU: Would you consider these doping controversies among the biggest setbacks of your ten-year career?

CM: Drugs in sports is not a track and field issue, it is not an Olympic sport issue. It is an American societal issue and, I dare say, a worldwide societal issue that is going to take a worldwide effort to succeed in lessening the impact of drugs on sports. I wish I could say that the Gatlin case was an isolated case over the last nine years, but certainly the incident and the Jerome Young [a 400-meter relay gold medalist banned from the sport for life after twice testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs in 2004] incident prior to that both gained a lot of public attention and also created a crisis situation for this organization. [We need to] try to get better at promoting the positive side of our sport. We have got to get better at working together as an Olympic community in this country and we have to do more to promote the athletes and the events that America cares about. We've had a lot of success over the last nine years and we expect to have a lot more especially over the next two years leading up to and including the Beijing Olympics.

DU: Do you see a day when track and field athletes are going to be on the same level of awareness as professional basketball players in the U.S. or international soccer players?

CM: I think it is safe to say that the top international track and field athletes are already the best-known athletes in the world. Bu,t just as all other countries face the hegemony of soccer, or international football, we face the hegemony of primarily American football in this country. Speaking frankly, we will never beat that.

DU: What are your plans to evolve beyond TV and cable?

CM: We'll do more than two million dollars in business through our internet site this year, through a combination of merchandise sales, registration for events, membership sign-up, coaching education classes, etcetera. And by any description, that's been very successful. They are very interactive in and among themselves. The world of traditional media cable and broadcast TV remains critically important to our goals to get more exposure to our athletes. And we are not going to turn our back on traditional media by any means. However, we need to serve a community that is frankly underserved by traditional media by having more of our events available through broadband and providing a more robust online environment.

DU: According to your website you have doubled your revenue since you started as CEO. Has being able to pay athletes evolved as you had imagined?

CM: When I started at USA Track and Field, we owed $3 million, which we didn't have, and the drug issues probably held us back from bigger success over the last nine years. Incremental work is sometimes a good way to go because you grow organically, you are able to adapt and improve in a way that makes every step you take more logical and consistent with the one before and you don't risk taking a great leap into the unknown that leads you ultimately to make several steps back before you can go forward again. So the pace has been slower than we would have liked, but the development has been a very positive one.

DU: When you ran track in the 70s there seemed to be more widespread interests in track and field in high schools and colleges. In your perspective have the grass roots level programs in track and field diminished over the last 20 to 30 years?

CM: You can find information to argue either side of that issue, but the fact is that there are more athletes taking part in track and field at the high school and college than there ever have been. At the Division I level, there are more collegiate divisions in track and field programs male and female, than there have ever been. Track and field is the number one high school and junior high school participatory sport, boys and girls combined; the number one NCAA participatory sport, men and women combined. And so we continue to have the world's best development system through our school system. We try to augment that by providing the signature coaching education program for America's 65,000 track and field coaches. We put almost 25,000 coaches through our coaching education program.

DU: U.S. sprinters seem to be more dominant on the world stage than middle distance runners. Do you agree?

CM: Well our athletes in technical events -- not only the sprinters but the shot put and the pole vault and high jump, long jump, triple jump -- have had a great record of success, both recent and historically. Our athletes in the middle distance and distance races regrettably have never had a strong record at success and that leads back to the beginning of the modern Olympics. We haven't won the men's 1,500 meters in the Olympics since 1908. We've had great individuals who have emerged, people like Frank Shorter and Joan Benoit Samuelson, but we've not had a consistent level of performance in the middle distances and distances like we have in the sprints and other technical events. So that is constantly a source of interest for us and will continue to be.

DU: What do you consider the biggest challenges in the next few years in USA Track and Field?

CM: The biggest challenge for USA Track and Field is the incredible contagiousness of the worldwide scene. International football needs 11 or even 20 great players to field a World Cup soccer team. In track and field, all you need is one great athlete -- and sometimes not even a track -- to have that athlete be competitive at the worldwide or Olympic level. We just simply have got to get better and better in order to maintain our position as the No. 1 world track and field team.

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