From The Editor — June 2004: It’s getting hard to appreciate out-of-the-blue performances

IT WASN’T MEANT AS A LETTER TO THE EDITOR, the e-mail that crossed my desk the other day. I’d love to share the complete text of it with you, but I can’t, for reasons that will soon become apparent.

It was the tale of an athlete—not an American—who is now at an age where massive breakthroughs happen infrequently. Last year he moved to the fringes of world class and this year, after taking a leave of absence from his job to train full-time, he has ramped it up another notch. The writer said the secret seems to be that the athlete simply used to train too hard and that a new coach has emphasized quality over quantity. And it’s a program that’s already bearing ripe fruit.

Reading that bit of e-mail really moved me. I—and I think most of you—love few things more than when athlete comes from nowhere with little warning. Particularly an older athlete who after years of being mediocre suddenly finds the magic he or she has been seeking for so many years. Some of my greatest memories in the sport have come from such scenarios.

But then came the writer’s last paragraph: “I didn’t want to post this [to the chatroom on the T&FN website] because of the inevitable slew of unfounded insinuations that it might provoke on the subject of pharmaceutical aids.”

Wham! There it was, just like somebody dropping a 16lb shot on your foot. A harsh reminder of one of the worst things the dopers have done to the sport. They’ve all but eliminated the sense of wonder that the out-of-the-blue performers used to give us. And while the blame lies solely on their shoulders, they are being aided and abetted by Internet yahoos who—as my writer made so plain—can’t stand to see any kind of miracle breakthroughs. They immediately yell “drugs!” whenever anything surprising happens.

It’s such a tragic situation that when I wrote the first draft of this column, at the point where I said “some of my greatest memories…” originally inserted a few classic examples from throughout the years. But then I excised them, simply because I didn’t want anybody to read a name and say to themselves, “You know, on reflection I guess he probably was dirty; I just didn’t realize it at the time.”

And that for people from eras where steroids, EPO and HGH didn’t exist.

But exist they do, and they continue to bedevil the sport. All sports. And while the marks may have gotten better because of it, the world has not been made a better place.

I want my sense of wonderment back, dammit!

[Distressing historical footnote: several months after this column appeared, the athlete mentioned at the top of the story crushed the author of the original e-mail to me by testing positive.]

#@!2004-06-01#@!2004-06-01#@!10#@!4#@!1#@!0#@!NULL#@!0#@!2007-01-27 09:59:02
2392#@!TFN#@!January 2005#@!NULL#@!Having Craig Masback and Bill Roe set for additional terms at USATF is a big plus for the sport#@!

BASHING CRAIG MASBACK has become a popular Internet exercise in some quarters. And by all accounts there are some inside the world of the volunteer organization that is USA Track & Field that also want his scalp. Fortunately, neither of these radical camps held any particular sway when push came to shove and USATF’s Board Of Directors recently extended his contract as CEO.

We’re not on each other’s Xmas-card lists by any means, but I do have to admit to a friendly relationship with Craig that predates his involvement with the federation by many years (ahh, the trip to a Eugene movie theater at the ’80 Olympic Trials to see The Shining, with rowdy athletes rolling beer bottles between the seats), so perhaps I don’t bring a perfectly detached journalist’s perspective to the proceedings. Nor am I a USATF insider in any way; I steer clear of the political side of things.

But with those two caveats made clear, from where I sit allow me to say that Masback has been the right guy in the right place at the right time.

The Ollan Cassell era in Indianapolis ended with a feeling that new blood was needed to drive a fading sport into the next century. As a former world-class performer who had stayed intimately in touch with the sport and with a law degree under his suspenders, Masback seemed a perfect fit. He has done nothing to dissuade me that that analysis was wrong.

Yes, the last few years of incessant drug-scandaling have come on his watch and while it’s true that the buck should always stop at the head man’s desk, my take on that is a simple one: despite all the PR hits the U.S. side of the sport has taken, it would have been only worse without Masback in place. Despite what on the surface might look like fallings-out with the IAAF, I think he has maintained their respect as a valid caretaker for the sport in the U.S.

His shrewd diplomacy and understanding of how things work in the labyrinthine halls of bureaucracy that make up not only USATF but also the international sporting community as a whole have prevented a real disaster. Without him at the helm, I think the USOC’s threat to decertify USATF may well have come to pass.

There’s a second strong element required to keep an organization like USATF glued together and that’s a strong President. Not in any way to disparage his predecessors, but USATF has never had as good a prexy as Bill Roe, so it was with great pleasure that I noted his re-election in Portland. As with Masback, allow me to note while Roe too is not on the Xmas list, he and I do share an unbridled passion for Lord Of The Rings, and that doesn’t mean the shot or discus kind.

But Roe has been absolutely tireless in working for USATF’s best interest, from top to bottom. No matter what age group or how amateur or professional the athletes involved, Roe has taken a deep and incisive look at what’s going on and worked to make it better.

Best of all, I like the synergy when I see Masback and Roe working in concert. Each understands what belongs in whose bailiwick and whose strengths lie where. Having them both in place at once can mean nothing but good for U.S. track & field, and I’m glad that the people responsible for putting them in place saw fit to do so again.