Triathletes May Break From Pack
Key leaders of the organization that governs triathlon have moved to sever ties with the U.S. Olympic Committee, contending that the USOC is more interested in winning medals than in developing and promoting the sport at its grass roots.
The treasurer of USA Triathlon, Jack Weiss, recently submitted a resolution calling for the federation to secede from the USOC. The unprecedented effort would stop the allocation of about $550,000 of the governing body’s more than $5 million annual budget to the roughly 200 elite athletes vying for Olympic consideration.
Instead, that $550,000 would be put back into the federation’s general fund to support the more than 50,000 USAT members who take part in the more than 1,400 triathlons staged each year around the country. The sport, a combination of swimming, cycling and running that many see as the ultimate test of endurance and personal will, is growing so quickly that races are filled almost as soon as entries are available.
The resolution is set for a vote at a meeting set for mid-March of the 11-member USAT board of directors. No U.S. member federation has ever before moved to secede from Olympic inclusion. “If I were a betting man, I’d bet they’d split,” said John Duke, 53, of Cardiff, Calif., publisher of Triathlete magazine and a former USAT board member.
Weiss, 59, of Euless, Texas, said, “I don’t usually raise hell to raise hell. I have a purpose.”
The clash essentially pits the dreams of world-class competitors, and those who aspire to be, against those of weekend athletes and others not among the sport’s elite.
The USOC’s overriding charge is to win Olympic medals. Last summer, it emerged from a nearly two-year period of wrenching management turmoil with a renewed commitment to that goal. But its charter also mandates that it help promote health and well-being through sport. The two goals “go hand in hand,” said Steve Roush, the USOC’s chief of sport performance. “I think a healthy pipeline and healthy development and strong coaching is going to lead to strong performance in the Olympic Games.”
But Dan Empfield, 48, of Valyermo, Calif., a longtime activist and businessman who designed a triathlon wetsuit and the sorts of bikes many triathletes now ride, said: “I love to swim, bike and run. I love that more than the Olympics.”
The resolution does not affect triathlon’s place in the Summer Olympics. The event was staged in Sydney in 2000 and in Athens last year, and it remains part of the lineup for the Beijing Games in 2008. If approved, however, the resolution would directly affect the way U.S. triathletes are screened, selected and sent to the Games.
The rift also involves other issues.
To decrease the possibility of conflict of interest on the triathlon federation’s board, the USOC wants to see more “independent” directors, just as the USOC has on its newly constituted 11-member board.
But those close to the USAT say that goes against the organization’s history. The federation was created in the early 1980s by race directors, for race directors, in part to help buy insurance and make the sport safer. Twenty-five years later, the federation is thriving, and they do not believe change is necessary.
“The money is an issue. But control is the issue,” Weiss said. “We own the federation, not the USOC.”
Then there are cultural issues.
An Olympic triathlon involves a 1,500-meter swim, a 40-kilometer (about 25-mile) bike ride and a 10-kilometer (6.2-mile) run. Olympic rules allow a cyclist to draft, meaning gain aerodynamic advantage by slipping in behind another cyclist just ahead.
An Ironman competition is a far greater test of endurance: a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and then a full marathon, 26.2 miles. There is no drafting in an Ironman.
Asked which represented the pinnacle of the sport, Tracy Luebbers, 38, a Los Angeles architect who took up triathlon in 1998, said, “It’s cool to watch it in the Olympics. But you’re a spectator.
“For a personal accomplishment, which is what triathlon is all about, it’s getting to that toughest course or that longest distance you never dreamed you could possibly do, and for most people, that’s Ironman. And for people who do Ironman a lot it’s, what’s the toughest Ironman?”
The USOC is not eager for separation.
If USAT opts out, the USOC would be left with the administrative burden of finding a new group that could identify Olympic contenders, mindful that the sport’s senior leadership has proven know-how when it comes to generating medal winners.
Six medals were up for grabs in Athens, three each for the men and women. Susan Williams, 35, of Denver won a bronze. U.S. athletes won 12 of the 42 medals available between 2001 and 2004 at the world championships, Olympics and Pan American Games and Goodwill Games.
The prospect of change already has left some top-notch triathletes with Olympic aspirations for 2008 feeling unsettled.
“Am I supposed to sit around for three years and hope someone comes up with a plan? That’s sort of panic-invoking,” said Erika Aklufi, 28, of Los Angeles.
Jim Scherr, the USOC’s acting chief executive, said, “If their governing body doesn’t want to meet the obligations of the Amateur Sports Act” -- the 1978 law that gave the USOC oversight of the nation’s Olympic program -- “and doesn’t wish to support elite athletes in their sport and doesn’t wish to build their sport at the grass-roots level in this country, then they should secede.
“And that’s their choice.”
Unlike many Olympic sports federations, USA Triathlon simply doesn’t need the USOC’s money.
For 2005, the federation’s revenues are projected at about $5.5 million, Weiss said. Corporate sponsors are eager to embrace the upscale triathlon demographic, and the federation is sitting on $2 million in savings, he said.
The membership rolls keep going up, at $30 per person per year. In 1998, USAT counted 16,461 members; in 2004, the count was up to 53,254.
Fewer than one-half of 1% of the 2004 members can legitimately claim to be aiming for a spot on the Olympic team.
At issue is how to support those athletes, perhaps 200 in all.
The USOC stands ready to give USAT $550,000 this year for elite athlete training. The years leading up to Beijing would see similar amounts.
In return, the USOC expects USAT to match that sum, reasoning that a federation actually putting up its own cash is demonstrating its earnestness to win, not just taking a handout from a paternalistic USOC.
But Weiss said, “I resent these suits from the USOC coming in and telling me how they want to run our sport. They didn’t do anything to get it to where it is. They don’t need to be a part of it.”
Roush, the USOC official, disagreed. The Olympics, he said, have been good for triathlon -- and so has the USOC.
The International Olympic Committee approved triathlon for the Games in 1994, beginning with the Sydney competition. Since those 2000 Games, USA Triathlon’s membership rolls have skyrocketed.
USOC’s cash support of triathlon between 1997 and 2000 totaled $850,000; it nearly doubled for the 2001-2004 cycle, to $1.65 million. An increase is planned for the period from 2005 to 2008.
In addition to the $1.65 million it gave to USAT through the Athens Games, the USOC also contributed more than $1 million in other services over the four years, including 31,000 “user days” for triathletes at the Chula Vista and Colorado Springs training centers.
“They only look at the dollar-for-dollar amount, the hard dollars, and somehow they think the other part is free,” Roush said. “While it may be free to them, somebody’s paying for it.”
The rift is being watched closely by other Olympic insiders, in part because some have long bristled at what they view as unwarranted USOC interference in the development and training of championship athletes.
“They for some ungodly reason think they have some idea how to produce medals,” said John Leonard, executive director of the American Swimming Coaches Assn.
Referring to the USOC, Leonard added, “They are clueless,” emphasizing that he was not speaking on behalf of USA Swimming.
USOC officials say they must be doing something right. In Athens, the U.S. team won 103 medals, the second-best total for a non-boycotted Games. At the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, the U.S. team won 34 medals, a record by far.
Weiss and others say the USOC money does little for the vast majority of USA Triathlon’s memberships.
“The federation was formed long before triathlon was an Olympic sport,” said Duke, the publisher of Triathlete magazine. “The bulk of the revenue comes from the amateur who in general doesn’t [care] about the Olympics....
“I think it’s probably a very difficult situation for the federation to serve two masters. The best thing that could probably happen is that the two separate.”