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Thoughts on the USATF Indoor Championships

posted by The Track & Field Superblog
Monday, March 4, 2013 at 7:51am EST

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Random thoughts, news and views on the USATF Indoor Championships…

The Three Stars

In the mode of professional hockey, here are my Three Stars of the USATF Championships…

3. Mary Cain
The high school junior won the mile off an extremely slow start (83 seconds for the first 400) and an extremely fast finish (59.6 seconds). It was a bizarre situation where the overwhelming favorite was also a complete rube. Coming into this meet, Cain had run three amazing races this winter, two miles and a 3000 meters, and beat a bunch of second-tier pros in the process. And this being an indoor championship in a year with no World Indoor Championships (and a post-Olympic year to boot), second-tier pros is all that showed up.

I’m sure each of the other competitors made the analysis that they simply couldn’t beat Cain in a straight-up race, but they had a chance of outsmarting her. It turns out that they had no chance at winning with that strategy either, but you can’t blame them for thinking it was the only chance they had and refusing to force the pace. And you can’t blame Cain, the rookie at this level, for waiting to take charge.

2. Ryan Whiting
Whiting won the shot put with ease–all of his fair marks were better than second place–but his fifth round was the big one. The shot went out to 21.80 meters (71′ 6 ¼”), his best in two years and the 2013 world leader.

1. Jenn Suhr
Suhr won the pole vault with a World Indoor Record clearance of 5.02 meters (16′ 5½”), and she took some shots a comprehensive indoor/outdoor world record of 5.07 meters (16′ 7½”). Now healthy for an extended period of time, the reigning Olympic champion is clearly the world’s best.

The record came on Saturday night, well after the running events were completed, and what crowd remained was a bit sparser than a World Record deserved. This was in no small part due to poor planning in terms of height progressions; the competition saw fifteen heights.

Low Athlete Turnout

In general, the quality of the fields were extremely low. The best example was the men’s 3000 meters, in which only four athletes took part.

If you define “stars” as either a) 2012 Olympians (not including relay-only athletes) or b) 2012 world-ranked athletes (by TFN), here’s the complete list of “stars” who competed this weekend:

Amanda Bingson
Amber Campbell
Michelle Carter
Matt Centrowitz
Sharon Day
Janay DeLoach
Trey Hardee
Becky Holliday
A.G. Kruger
Maria Michta
Jeff Porter
Jeremy Scott
Amanda Smock
Jenn Suhr
Lisa Uhl
Ryan Whiting

If you watched or otherwise closely followed the meet, I know what you’re probably thinking: “Really? There were that many stars? Didn’t seem like it.”

Or you might be saying “You’re full of crap, most of these aren’t stars”. Which is probably true; the only Olympic medalists among the above are Jenn Suhr, Trey Hardee and Janay DeLoach–and Hardee skipped two of the heptathlon events this weekend while long jumper DeLoach ran the hurdles. The only others who came reasonably close to medaling in London and who showed up in Albuquerque were Matt Centrowitz and Michelle Carter.

Here’s the real divide, though: of those sixteen names listed above, only two are running event specialists. Does that rob the others of “star” status? It does because of the way the sport gets covered, but it doesn’t have to. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: field eventers are willing to compete anywhere, anytime, and it’s self-defeating for a struggling sport to ignore the most dependable half of its workforce.

Past USATF Indoor Championships held in years without a World Indoor Championships had better athlete turnouts, but that was when VISA was putting up money for its Championship Series jackpot and those vying for its payday had to show up. VISA is no longer a USATF sponsor and there was no jackpot this year. Ergo, no one chasing a big check.

There are structural problems, too. Getting to the IAAF World Championships requires a qualifying time, and they’re fairly challenging in the distance events. Seven members of Jerry Schumacher’s Portland-based training group skipped the USATF Championships in favor of a special time-trial race on Friday night at The Armory in Manhattan. Two hit the 5000 meter qualifying mark they were going after, and one of them–Lopez Lomong–ended up breaking the indoor American Record. There were more distance-event Olympians in that one race than there were in the whole USATF Indoor Championships. They were going to gain nothing by running at the national championships, but helped USATF by earning those qualifying marks. (Remember, the Amateur Sports Act, which created USATF, directs the organization to maximize Team USA performance at major international competitions, and athletes earning Worlds qualifiers can only help in that regard.)

On the upside, some struggling runners were able to make a name for themselves due to the weakened fields. A prime example is Eric Sowinski, who won the 800 meters. This comes on the heels of upsetting two Olympians in a much-hyped 600 meter showdown at the Millrose Games.

Who will host?

Another reason some athletes gave for not attending the USATF Championships is the altitude. At over 5,200 feet of elevation, Albuquerque isn’t the most favorable venue for distance running. Why does USATF keep putting the meet in Albuquerque if that’s such a drawback?

The answer is because only Albuquerque wants it. At the small press conference prior to last year’s USATF Championships in Albuquerque, it was announced that the meet would be returning there for 2013. USATF interim CEO Mike McNees was asked if there were any other bidders, and he said yes but that he couldn’t remember who they were. Sensing a bit of dissembling, I went around and found the right person to ask and was told that there was only one other bidder, the Spire Academy in Geneva, Ohio, and that bid was rejected on technical grounds (an oversized track rather than the standard 200 meter banked track).

I went to Albuquerque last year and I had a good time. The local organizing committee did a good job, and the city was a nice weekend getaway. The altitude is the only drawback I see to the site. But championships need multiple sites competing to host the event, and I don’t sense that happening here.

Here’s the bind: there are only so many 200 meter banked tracks in the USA. The meet has to be held on one of them, because marks made on an oversized track are not accepted for World Championships qualifying (either indoors or out) and a 200 meter flat track isn’t fast enough to allow for said qualifying marks to be made. And the vast majority of those banked tracks are already booked for college meets during any of the weekends that the USATF meet might be held. So none of the top-level facilities want it, and I’m not aware that a site for the 2014 championships has yet been announced. Note that Albuquerque is hosting next year’s NCAA Championships and the meet management team probably doesn’t want to put together two big-time meets in such a short time period.

What if no one bids on the meet? Then what?

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