Is USATF Doing a Good Job?

Who knows.

Actually, literally, who knows if USA Track & Field is doing a terrible job or a great job? Lots of people have opinions about the question, even Runner’s World is getting into the debate. But I’m not sure anyone actually knows.

The problem is that there’s no criteria by which to answer this question. Typically, when we attempt to judge effectiveness in anything, we first have to decide how we’re going to know if what we’re doing is working. This is generally actually a requirement of grants to nonprofit organizations. If I give you $1 million to fight malaria, then I would like to know if you are effectively fighting malaria. If I give you $1 million to promote track and field, then I would like to know if you’re effectively promoting track and field. But, what measures will we use to determine this?

Is USATF supposed to help the U.S. win medals? Do we measure effectiveness by elite results? Is it supposed to help grow interest in running? Do we tell if that’s working by looking at the number of people doing running races? Is USATF doing a better job if it raises more money or has more of its officials placed on international boards and the like? Are those measures directly related to and reflective of USATF’s efforts? Probably not. (Which also tends to be a requirement of measuring effectiveness—that what you’re measuring is directly impacted by what you’re doing.)

USATF’s actual mission is: “USA Track & Field drives competitive excellence and popular engagement in our sport.” But, what are the ways to tell if it is driving competitive excellence? Or popular engagement?

Look, I’m not a big fan of the 23-year Nike deal that USATF signed. There’s also no reason the national governing body of a sport should be sending its athletes cease-and-desist letters for making fun team videos. And, I thought the mess of DQs at indoors last year had all kinds of problems. I don’t know for sure if those problems are getting resolved or if they were never as big as they seemed in the first place. I don’t know for sure if they’re remnants of an old regime or of business as usual. It’s also highly possible and probably likely that the outpouring of anger about sponsorships and money and the strange politics of elite sports isn’t really about USATF, but is about a lot of other things that have been a long time coming.

But, whatever measures we use to determine if USA Track and Field is doing a good job at the job of track and field at least one of them has to be how athletes feel about the organization. If USATF doesn’t have buy-in from its own athlete members (and it very much is losing this buy-in with an increasing number), then it’s failing at being effective at one very important part of its job.