Dispatches, March 1997
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."