Monday Morning Decathlete

What did we learn this week?

Doug Logan and USATF have finally settled.
When USA Track and Field’s board of directors fired their CEO last year, Logan claimed he was owed the entire $1.7 million remainder on his contract. USATF said they had fired him with cause (which is a specific legal term spelled out in his contract) and didn’t owe him a cent.

The lawyers offered him $500,000, which he rejected. After the usual legal wrangling, on Friday the two sides came to an agreement. Specific terms were not publicized, but “educated conjecture would suggest that Mr. Logan will, after paying his legal support, walk away with approximately one million dollars for his time and issues.”

USATF has now been without a CEO since last September. There have been various noises about unnamed candidates, but still no leader. When will we get one?

Track and Field News editor-in-chief Garry Hill dropped this bomb at the magazine’s message boards:
the hot rumor du jour (du mois) is that the decision will be postponed until after the [Olympic Trials] next year.
(emphasis intact)

Yikes! WTF? If true, this is complete dereliction of duty. It would be irresponsible and detrimental to the organization and its sport. It would be incomprehensible not to have a face of leadership for the organization as it heads into and executes its highest-profile event in a quadrennium.

Again, there’s no proof this rumor is true. But if it is true, and I were to speculate as to why, it’s not a hard nut to crack. Imagine that someone inside the organization wants to be CEO but for various reasons cannot. In the absence of a real CEO, that person could install a puppet as acting head, and thus be the de facto CEO. Now, who would do that?

USATF president Stephanie Hightower has long been rumored to want the CEO job. Although there are no legal impediments to this, it would be seen as a conflict of interest (and not a small one either). The USOC recently went through a similar situation which turned very ugly, and their new management does not wants its high-profile NGBs to do the same. One observer said that if Hightower were to become CEO, the USOC would “move to decertify USATF [as the Olympic selection body] within minutes”.

Let me restate that Hill’s statement about another year-long wait for a CEO is just a rumor, and my reasoning as to why is pure speculation. But I thought these were important issues to raise in public discussion.

LATE EDIT: Phil Hersh of the Chicago Tribune, this very morning: “It is very possible she [Hightower] could become the CEO”. Maybe it isn’t pure speculation.

Dick Ebersol resigned from NBC Sports.
This was totally unexpected. Ebersol has done a lot with NBC Sports, but he’s most notable for engineering their Olympic coverage. This has significant implications for the future.

Most sportswriters praised Ebersol’s many years at the helm of NBC.

He controlled the Games’ production, oversaw their storytelling and expanded on Arledge’s tape-delay approach of showing major Olympic sports to get the highest ratings in prime time — the subject of some of the most vocal criticism of his career. He usually ignored the complaints because the practice was good business.
He followed Mr. Arledge’s lead in personalizing Olympic athletes, believing that viewers would be attracted to stories about competitors from around the world.

From my perspective, it’s only that Ebersol said it was good business. Yes, Olympic ratings were high. But there’s no guarantee they wouldn’t have been higher if done in a different style.

Speaking for the opposition, the NY Post’s Phil Mushnick

As the TV emperor of the Olympics — under Ebersol, despite his boasts that he was way ahead of the network pack in fiscal responsibility, NBC badly overpaid for Olympic rights — the Games no longer existed as a sports and news event, but solely as a primetime, cut-and-paste flag-waving melodrama aimed at the easy (remember John Tesh?). Discerning viewers knew that much of what they were watching needlessly was on tape, the most popular events held for primetime.

Likely what precipitated Ebersol’s departure was disagreement with new Comcast management about how to go about broadcasting future Olympics. (Ebersol said it was an impasse on money and money alone, but Comcast must have had a reason to not think he was worth it.)

Dick is pushing back on Comcast’s vision versus his own traditional experience. He saved everything for primetime and that met with opposition from some viewers.

A response by “Marlow” at the TFN message boards:

If by ‘met with opposition’ he means:

viewers hated him with a burning passion that may have included wishing a fiery poker thrust into his eye sockets

then yes, I agree.

All these dissections of Ebersol’s career have neglected one important topic which has hugely affected U.S. Olympic coverage: the 1992 TripleCast. For those who don’t recall, it was a three-channel pay-per-view scheme that covered major Olympic sports commercial-free and in great detail. It is generally derided as a colossal failure, and from a financial standpoint it was, losing about $100 million for NBC because so few viewers ponied up the cash. But those who saw it said it was the best American Olympic coverage they’d ever seen, and possibly the best anywhere in the world.

I think the TripleCast affected what Ebersol thought people wanted to see. It probably reinforced his idea of selling the Olympics as heavily produced jingoistic “reality TV” crap, instead of, you know, sports.

ESPN and Fox are weighing serious bids for the Olympics, and I hope one of them gets it. Our current model of Olympic coverage needs to be rebuilt from the ground up. ESPN has promised as much, saying they would show everything live regardless of the time. Both ESPN and Fox have done wonderful jobs in bringing worldwide soccer coverage to the USA. I can’t imagine they wouldn’t do the same with the most important Olympic sport, track and field.

And then there’s this, a tweet by SI’s Richard Deitsch:

Hope ESPN gets the Olympics if only to see Skip Bayless & Rob Parker debate whether Nixon Kiplimo Chepsaba is better than Asbel Kiprop.

It’s a nice laugh. But it’s more than that. Deitsch actually took the time to look into who the good milers are, even for just a joke, and that’s meaningful. ESPN greatly affects American sports culture, for better or for worse (and a lot of both) and when they pay money for something they make sure they get their money’s worth out of it. Their pundits are empty-headed gasbags just like all the others, sports and otherwise, but they talk about what ESPN wants them to talk about.

The USA may have a hammer throw medal threat.
Competing down in Uberlandia, Brazil on Wednesday, Kibwe Johnson blew up his old PR of 78.25m with a big 80.09m throw. It makes him only the fourth American ever to get over the 80-meter mark.

There’s nothing specifically magic about 80 meters; it’s a round number, but it’s still arbitrary. In imperial measure it’s 262′ 5″, which is no special number. You could just as easily say that his throw makes him only the third American over 80.08m. So it’s a nice accomplishment, but in itself it’s just a big throw in an early-season meet.

He is currently third on the world list, although talking about position on the world list is a) less meaningful than it sounds, and b) even less meaningful in May.

All of this is not to say that Johnson’s big throw is insignificant. It is, and in a very big way. It is huge when taken into context, and in looking to the future.

Johnson is 29 years old and closing in on 30. Here’s his progression in the hammer over the first seven years he threw it:
2002 – 64.26m
2003 – 69.11m, 16th at USATF Championships
2004 – 67.99m, 19th at Olympic Trials
2005 – 74.01m, fouled out at USATF Championships, #3 rank in USA
2006 – 75.32m, 4th at USATF Championships, #2 rank in USA
2007 – 75.95m, 2nd at USATF Championships, Pan-Am silver, fouled out at Worlds, #2 rank in USA
2008 – 75.33m, fouled out at Olympic Trials

As you can see, there was rapid improvement for Johnson when he first picked up the hammer, but it soon leveled off. And there were constant fouling problems in the biggest meets. As it stood, Johnson was never going to make a difference on the world level, and was approaching a thrower’s prime years of late twenties and early thirties. He was facing a crossroads.

So Johnson took a chance. He moved from Ohio to British Columbia to take up with a new coach, 1972 Olympic champion Anatoliy Bondarchuk. The new coach totally tore down his form and started over again, as he emphasizes technique over strength*. It was new in every way.

And Johnson’s 2009 season was a new beginning. His best mark, 67.80m, was his worst since beginning to throw the hammer the first time. He got no mark at the USATF Championships, with two fouls and a pass.

But in 2010 he was on the upswing again. He got over his big-meet fouling problem and matched his best-ever USATF Championships showing with a second-place finish. His best mark, 77.07m, was a PR by over a meter. He finished off the season with a win over several big names at the DecaNation meet in France.

So we come to 2011. His first two meets were in the 75 meter range, but were hampered by a foot injury that caused him to miss training and a meet. For his third, he went down to Brazil, hit that big PR, and beat several top-notch throwers in the process.

It was a PR of over three meters. His improvement over the last three years has been remarkable, and it seems unlikely that he’s hit his upper limit.

Looking towards this year’s Worlds and next year’s Olympics, Johnson has to be considered a medal threat. What distance will be necessary to medal is anyone’s guess, but no doubt it will require the ability to throw over 80 meters. In the last three years only six men have done that, and only three have gone over 81 meters. Things always get tougher in an Olympic year, but he will be too. It’s worth noting that Bondarchuk’s throwers tend to peak well—for example, Dylan Armstrong’s first big breakthrough in the shot was a totally unexpected near-miss of a bronze medal in Beijing three years ago.

If Johnson continues to improve—and it seems unthinkable that he won’t—he may legitimately become one of the best three or four hammer-throwers in the world. At that point, all it takes is performing to his ability on the day in question. His new system emphasizes tempo and technique, which are a heck of a lot easier to control under pressure (note his previous tendency towards fouls, which he no longer has).

On Sunday Jojhnson won over some top throwers again, coming from behind on his last throw. His win streak is now at nine meets. His old foul problems were not the mark of a choke artist, as a casual observer might think, but of bad form getting worse when being forced. His new and better technique now comes through for him when he needs it most.

Can you tell I’m feeling good about this?

*Any readers who are worried about a thrower associating with a former Soviet and then making a big improvement at age 30, just remember this: Coach Bondarchuk more or less thinks time spent weight lifting is time that could be spent throwing, and prefers his athletes spent a lot more time on the latter. He doesn’t want his athletes to try to muscle the hammer, so steroids would be pointless in this approach.

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One Response to Monday Morning Decathlete

  1. djs says:

    A nit to pick, but it’s kind of important — Richard Deitsch works for Sports Illustrated and SI.com, not ESPN… so his tweet was among other things a humorous skewering of ESPN’s penchant to act at times like the NFL and NBA are the only sports worth paying attention to. Unless, of course, ESPN/ABC have the broadcast rights — then it’s important. (For example, they suddenly decided that soccer existed last summer, at least for the duration of the World Cup, so maybe there’s some hope for visibility if the Mouse gets the Olympic broadcast rights.)