KEEPING TRACK

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KEEPING TRACK

Written by Rod O’Donnell on 17 September 2012.

It is difficult to compare watching the Olympics on TV and actually being there; therefore, I won’t give London the edge over Atlanta, where we spent ten glorious days in 1996 watching the greatest sporting event that I have ever seen. However, the games of the 2012 Olympiad were truly outstanding. Of course, track and field captured most of my attention, and the sport lived up to its high expectations.

Success, in what is still the sport that is synonymous with the Olympic Games, was the result of a system in the United States that is second to none in the world, despite some flaws.

Our training facilities are truly outstanding. Nearly all high schools and universities have tracks that provide opportunities for athletes of all ages to train and compete in facilities that enhance their chances to develop.  Coaching is also an area of strength, and it continues to get better, with access to ideas and theories from every country and around the world. Coaching education programs made available through the United States Track & Cross-Country Coaches’ Association and USTAF are only two of the examples of opportunities that give coaches an atmosphere in which to learn and reinforce their coaching knowledge. The annual OATCCC Winter Clinic that brings over 1000 professionals together to learn is yet another example of how our system continuously strives to improve.

Without a doubt, one of the greatest assets of our success in the Olympic Games is the developmental system in our schools. The “farm system” provides the important base for the entire system. From the middle school teams through the collegiate programs, young men and women learn the skills that will eventually lead them to success on the international level. These skills are critical to their development, but the passion that is developed for the sport is vital for future success. In addition to the interscholastic teams, the age group programs sponsored by the USATF, AAU, Hershey Corp, etc., play a critical role in young athletes’ development. In the early ‘80’s, Marshall University hosted the initial Hershey National Championships. The meet brought together boys and girls from 50 states to compete. The experience provided hundreds of youngsters with their first experience of competing on a national level. Today the meet is held in Hershey, PA., partly because Marshall discontinued their men’s program and turned the track stadium into a rec center and intramural fields.

University programs are another great strength in our developmental system.  Almost all members of the Olympic track and field team were products of institutions of higher learning. Olympians from Ohio prepared for their Olympic experience both in and out of state, at Ashland University, Ohio State University, Penn State, to name just a few. This is another reason to continue to support our sport on the collegiate level. It provided a critical link in the “farm system” between our very strong high school programs and the post-collegiate level. Simply stated, universities play a crucial role in the greatest developmental system in the world, along with providing world class educations and degrees.  Unfortunately, those departments that have dropped their programs are doing a disservice to our Olympic program, and therefore to our country.

As we know, setting goals is critical to achieving success in anything that we attempt to do.  In 2008, USATF, led by the then-CEO Doug Logan, organized a group (Project30) to evaluate the sport and recommend ways that it could be improved. One of the goals that the group established was to win 30 medals at the London Games. At the time, this seemed like an unattainable number, considering the debacle that many track athletes had experienced in Beijing. (Ex. Staff did not pick up bib numbers, forcing athletes to print them by hand.) The report had two basic goals: to capture 30 medals in London, and to increase the visibility, viability, and value of track and field as a sport. The United States came up just one medal short, but by nearly achieving the first goal, the second one was certainly met, and that can do nothing but improve the promotion of track and field on all levels.

Take a moment to appreciate the London Games, and understand that when a country works together, has great leadership in people such as Los Angeles Gold Medalist Sebastian Coe, and totally commits to being the best, great things can be accomplished. Congratulations to all of England!

Yours in track,

Rod O’Donnell

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