Sport: Hey, America, Remember Us?

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Dispatches, March 1997

Sport: Hey, America, Remember Us?

With sponsors and spectators vanishing and TV saying no thanks, a sinking USA Track & Field tosses its top man overboard
By John Brant

For The Record

Mud Is Thicker Than Water
Team Saturn road riders Frank and Mark McCormack showed exactly what a little brotherly love can accomplish in the first half-mile of the national cyclo-cross championships last December in Seattle. On the opening stretch of the grueling race--consisting of seven trips around a 1.8-mile loop interspersed with both asphalt and singletrack--little brother Mark paced Frank to the front of the 143-rider field, and then the two ran side-by-side, effectively blockading their foes. By the time they reached the muddy singletrack, Frank had taken a commanding lead. In fact, the elder McCormack might have won without breaking a sweat had he not suffered two flat tires on the rain-drenched course. Passed momentarily by defending champ Jan Wiejak, Frank reached his pit crew and then regained the lead for good in the last half-mile, finishing in 62 minutes even. Shortly after being passed, Wiejak crashed into a barrier, allowing Mark McCormack to take second in 62:16.

A Nine-Iron Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Ah, March. That delightful, near-vernal time when mercury readings in the coldest of our nation's iceboxes begin to seem almost sane. Alas, the same cannot be said for the citizens of these frigid outposts, who seem determined to emerge from hibernation with the most bizarre of outdoor festivities. Herewith, a look at a few of the oddest cabin-fever diversions taking center stage this month:

National Ski-Joring Finals, Red Lodge, Montana. In this event derived from Scandinavian lore, skiers towed by ranching horses "race" around an oval track, negotiating slalom gates and three-foot jumps at breakneck speed. "It's the one time," explains volunteer Cheri McCulley, "when redneck cowboy culture merges with radical ski culture. It's a perfect match."

Bering Sea Ice Golf Classic, Nome, Alaska. At this frozen six-hole tourney, brandy-guzzling contestants whack orange balls off "tees"-actually spent shotgun shells-and into coffee cans drilled into the ice. In years past, organizers loaded fire extinguishers with green Jell-O and sprayed "greens" onto the course, but this practice has been rendered obsolete by the use of artificial turf. Happily, one tradition has been preserved: The duffers must still dogleg around dense stands of used Christmas trees frozen onto the "snowways." Says Classic coordinator Eliot Staples, "We call that the Nome National Forest."

Snowman Burning, Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. "In March, there's still two feet of snow on the ground," says Tom Pink, spokesman for Lake Superior State University. "Suffice it to say that the students are pretty sick of it." Their revenge against Old Man Winter? Daffodil-clad coeds gather on a campus green to hasten the onset of spring by reading poetry and torching an eight-foot-tall snowman in beachwear.

Say, Can I Buy You a Deep Breath?
"Oxygen is our source of life," pronounces Lissa Charron, owner of Toronto's O2 Spa Bar. "So instead of a martini, here you get a hit of oxygen." Yes, in a phenomenon sure to transform pickup lines everywhere, "oxygen bars" allow you to pull up a stool and, for $16, have plastic tubes shoved up your nose for 20 minutes. For just $4 more, you can even enjoy your snort in a private room with a fish tank. Charron likens the experience to "the invigorating and energizing sensation after waking from a deep slumber." Thankfully, next month we Americans will finally get to savor the experience for ourselves, when Charron opens the nation's first oxygen bar in New York City. Which means cleaner bronchi for millions, right? "Well, I guess there might be a placebo effect," says Dr. Norman H. Edelman of the American Lung Association, who maintains that there are no health benefits to be derived from the therapy. Not so, says Charron, using a less-than-scientific line of reasoning. "Hey, listen, if you collapse on the street and the paramedics come," she argues, "what's the first thing they do? That's right, they strap an oxygen mask on you."

Of all the titans among American sports executives--Pete Rozelle, David Stern, Peter Ueberroth--there is none whose reign quite compares with that of Ollan Cassell. Perhaps the Hoover era at the FBI offers the closest parallel to Cassell's 31-year stint at American track and field, which concludes, against his wishes, at the end of this month: the shadowy omnipresence, the tireless clinging to power, and ultimately, the ignominy after the fall.

But there is quite a significant difference, too. When Hoover bade adieu to the Bureau, critics weren't charging him with leaving it in disarray, mired in debt and limping into an uncertain future. Somehow, over the last decade of his tenure as executive director of USA Track & Field, Cassell was able to rebuff increasing demands for his scalp. Last December, however, the bell finally tolled for the 59-year-old former Olympic sprinter, when USATF's board of directors voted not to renew his contract, ending the longest administration in U.S. athletic history and, more important, acknowledging to the world that American track and field is in dire need of a renaissance.

In fact, the current state of the sport embodies the central contradiction of Cassell's reign: While select flowers--namely superstars such as Michael Johnson, Carl Lewis, and Gail Devers--have continued to blossom, American track's root system has shriveled. When Cassell took the helm in the mid-1960s, telecasts of U.S.-U.S.S.R. track meets were major network events, indoor contests often outdrew the NBA, and promising young athletes dreamed of becoming the next Rafer Johnson or Jim Ryun. Today, in an era when marketing and promotion contribute at least as much as athletic talent to a sport's prominence, American track doesn't even have a TV contract. It remains shadowed by drug scandal. The handful of major meets that have survived, including such notable events as Philadelphia's Penn Relays and New York City's Millrose Games, draw mortifyingly scant crowds. Once storied university track programs, such as those at middle-distance mecca Oregon State and sprinter-dominated San Jose State, have folded their tents. And most alarmingly, fewer and fewer young athletes are entering the sport. The number of high school students competing has plunged by nearly a third over the last 20 years. And the executive director's many adversaries have little trouble deciding whom to blame.

"Cassell tried to manage this sport like it was still the 1960s," says Bob Wood, an athletes' agent and chairman of the USATF men's long-distance running committee. "He refused to recognize that in the nineties, sports has become entertainment. It's not just what's happening down on the field that's important; it's what's happening up in the luxury boxes and sponsors' lounges. Most of all, it's what's happening on TV. Ollan refused to come to grips with those changes."

If so, then how did he fend off his critics for so long? According to defenders and detractors alike, Cassell (who has declined to be interviewed since the vote) had a firm command of the art of manipulation. "Ollan could make the right people feel good at the right time," explains running journalist Jim Ferstle. "The organization is made up of athletes and coaches, whose lifeblood is training money and trips to competitions. Cassell was a master at dispensing both--or withholding both."

But in 1996, USATF's mounting and increasingly public failures caught up with him. Olympic years are usually flush for the organization, and last year was expected to be no exception. Instead, despite the Games' being held on U.S. soil, the dazzling performances of Johnson and company, and track and field's highest Olympic TV ratings ever, USATF logged a multimillion-dollar loss. Ironically, the U.S. Olympic Trials served as a particularly glaring example of the sport's woes: A pathetic daily average of fewer than 10,000 fans dotted the vast expanses of Atlanta's Olympic Stadium--something that sat none too well with event sponsor Mobil Oil. Apparently disgruntled at the sight of an almost-empty stadium draped with Mobil banners, the company, which chipped in millions of dollars over the last 16 years and was the organization's biggest benefactor, has opted out this season. Now, with only a tenuous arrangement with Nike left to fill the coffers, USATF has been forced to cut more than $2 million from its 1997 budget. "Track and field has always been the backbone of this company, and we'd love nothing more than to keep pouring money into the sport," says Nike spokeswoman Erin Kendrigan, making little attempt to hide the company's concern over the current state of affairs. "But we're going to need a lot more leadership and direction from USATF."

Cassell's opponents saw an upside to all this turmoil: a golden opportunity to depose him. They launched an intense lobbying campaign, led by Wood, former Olympic marathoner Nancy Ditz, and USATF secretary Bill Roe. All three represent road racing interests, which received short shrift under Cassell, a gold medalist in the 4x400 relay at the '64 Olympics and a die-hard track traditionalist. Now the group's new leaders vow to make road racing, especially the ever-popular marathon, more prominent in the organization, and to better tailor track to the demands of both television and corporate advertising. (As if to prove the point, at press time Nike executive Steve Miller was rumored to be among the leading candidates to succeed Cassell.)

And yet, as the Cassell era winds down, the victors in this power struggle seem more chastened than exultant. "I still can't fathom how, with the best track athletes in the world, our sport could be in this deep a mess," says Wood. "How could we have botched such an opportunity? What will it take to bring the sport back to the forefront of the public's attention? The new director faces a daunting task."

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