- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 3, 2006

The 28th USA Track & Field Annual Meeting in Indianapolis concludes today. USATF chief executive Craig Masback began the six-day conference organized by the sport’s governing body with his “State of the Sport” speech, encapsulating 2006 as “a year of hope and humility, a year of progress and punishment, and a year of accomplishment and agony. We met or exceeded our strategic plan objectives in almost every category, and saw performance and programmatic success at every age level of our sport.”

TV ratings for the Visa Championship Series were up significantly, as well as participation in every category, according to Masback. This included USATF’s Be A Champion program, which delivered a message of healthy lifestyles, fitness and living life with integrity to a record number of young people. USATF’s foundation grew and made its first elite athlete development grants. The sport raised more than $600 million for charity.

With the Annual Meeting’s motto “Focus on the Horizon,” Masback listed key objectives for 2007:

• Maintain and extend Team USA’s status as the world’s No. 1 track & field team.

• Dramatically improve the visibility of the sport in the United States in two notable ways: creating an innovative new television and Internet presence that is currently being negotiated and marketing USATF’s new logo and look, which was unveiled last week.

c Increase participation in America’s leading participatory sport, focusing resources on grass roots and club initiatives.

No surprise there. These goals come right out of Article 3 of USATF’s bylaws.

One would hope that USATF is doing all it can to develop the elite side of the sport, the side that garners hardware at the World Championships and Olympic Games. Success is easily measured in medals earned.

But to dramatically improve the visibility of the sport in the United States is a challenge of Everestian proportions. The United States is seen as the cheating capital of the world in track and field. No matter that USATF adopted a zero-tolerance plan in 2003, several high-profile athletes, including Justin Gatlin, still got busted this year.

“We will never be past the doping issue, and shouldn’t be, but once again we must face it directly, acknowledge its challenge for our sport and deal with it effectively, so that the pure joy of our sport that attracted us to it in the first place can triumph,” Masback said.

The stupidity of the matter is that a few of the athletes who greatly benefit from the sport ultimately are bruising the hand that feeds them. The image of the sport at the elite level, especially but not limited to the sprints, continues to stink. Why would anybody in corporate America want to commit funds to a sport that has a few drug cheats and the remainder being suspects?

Professional baseball, football and basketball finally are catching on, which could affect their corporate sponsorship, but track and field and long distance running have been making headlines for their drug cheats for years.

Too bad these stories of wrongdoing always seem to make headlines while many of the good ones do not, like another story out of Indianapolis this week. Baylor track and field coach Clyde Hart was named the 2006 Nike Coach of the Year by USATF, while two of his prodigies, Sanya Richards and Jeremy Wariner were named winners of the 2006 Jesse Owens Award by USATF.

Both athletes completed undefeated seasons in the 400 meters in 2006, with Richards adding the American record to her resume.

Both athletes continue to bring to the sport the kind of excellence, sportsmanship and thrills that should dominate the headlines.

Since joining his alma mater as a coach in 1964, Hart — who graduated from Baylor in 1956 — has coached 29 national champions (14 individual and 15 relay) and 475 All-America performances. However, he is primarily known for coaching four-time Olympic goal medalist Michael Johnson (world record in the 400 in 43.18 and 200 in 19.32). Another one of his pupils, former George Mason standout Greg Haughton, won bronze at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

What the sport needs is more Clyde Harts, and locally, more Larry Colberts. They are out there, unfortunately in the shadows of coaches the likes of Trevor Graham and Charlie Francis.

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