It’s become a tradition of sorts that every Olympic Games needs to be preceded by stories of scandal and intrigue, so it’s perversely appropriate that the lead-up to the Olympic Team Trials marathon next February has been plagued with its own mini-fiasco.
It began this past summer, after it was announced that the 2024 U.S. Olympic Trials marathon would take place shortly after noon on February 3, 2024. Not everyone was thrilled with the late start as the Trials are happening in Orlando. For some, staging a competitive, high-stakes marathon in the middle of the day in Florida seemed like a blatant disregard for athlete health.
In September, nearly 100 Trials participants co-signed a letter from the Athletes Advisory Committee to USA Track & Field leadership requesting that the race start time be moved to 6 or 7 A.M. to protect the participants from potential heat-related illness and injury. Following a private meeting with USATF CEO Max Siegel, the Athlete Advisory Committee was initially optimistic that the start times would be changed. However, two weeks ago, the Committee publicly reprimanded the Greater Orlando Sports Commission (GO Sports), the local organization responsible for putting on the Trials race. In a letter that was shared with the public, Trials athletes expressed their chagrin that while USATF and their television partners at NBC seemed amenable to an earlier start time of 10 A.M., GO Sports was refusing to budge on a noon start, unless they were compensated to the tune of $700,000.
“It is difficult to find words capable of expressing how angry and disappointed the athletes are to hear the ultimate hurdle they face is with the Greater Orlando Sports Commission,” the letter from the athletes read. In response, the owners of Track Shack, an Orlando-based running specialty store and event management company that is co-hosting the Trials, published an open letter of their own in which they maintained that they had been unfairly “blindsided” by the eleventh-hour request to move up the start time. The local organizers had repeatedly been told by USATF that a noon start was “non-negotiable,” largely due to the economic incentives of having a live TV broadcast of the race at a desirable time slot, and had developed their business model accordingly. This week, however, USATF announced that all parties had agreed on a 10 A.M. start after all. So much for non-negotiable.
As far as scandals go, an argument over the appropriate start time of a 26.2-mile road race isn’t exactly edge-of-your-seat type stuff. When I spoke to Rich Kenah, the CEO of the Atlanta Track Club and race director for the last Olympic Trials race, he told me that while “any opportunity for our sport to be ‘above the fold’ so to speak, tends to be good, when the challenges of our business are front and center, I think it has a detrimental effect on future opportunities for the sport to grow and flourish.”
Kenah is cautious not to make too much out of the start time debacle. He says that there’s almost always some sticking point when a local organizing committee has to coordinate with USATF in a way that satisfies the needs of their Olympic and broadcast partners. For Kenah, the larger issue, and the root cause of these more minor friction points, is a Trials business model that always puts the entire financial burden on the host.
For anyone who wants a detailed analysis of why that model is not sustainable, I’d recommend Jonathan Gault’s extensive report, published last year on Letsrun.com. In brief, the problem of the current Trials model is that it appears to mimic, albeit on a vastly smaller scale, the parasitic behavior of the International Olympic Committee, which takes in billions in sponsor and television revenue, while the host city is left to bankroll the lion’s share of the Games. While the cost of hosting the Olympic Trials might “only” be around two or three million dollars, that’s a hefty price tag for a running events company like the ATC, which has few viable ways to generate revenue from the event. (The local organizer cannot secure sponsorship agreements that threaten the exclusivity of USATF and USOPC partners, which leaves them with limited options.) In addition to being on the hook for all the operational and logistical costs of staging a world-class marathon, the local organizing committee is required to pick up the bill for stuff that, one would think, could be at least partially subsidized by USATF—like athlete prize money (at more than $500,000, this is one of the larger costs of staging the event) and event promotion ($75,000 minimum). As a final insult to injury, the Trials host needs to pay USATF a $100,000 rights fee.
With both the Olympic Games and the marathon Trials, prospective hosts are of course promised that staging the event will be a boon for the local economy. (The “Request for Proposal” guidebook for the 2024 Trials estimates that the “economic impact” of the event is around $20 million for the host city.) Arguably the bigger selling point is the sheer prestige of being associated with the Olympic brand. Hosting a Trials race can potentially elevate the profile of a city’s signature marathon.
Prestige, however, is a fickle thing. It’s no secret that the chorus of pushback against the Olympics has only grown louder in recent years, as more and more prospective host cities have retracted their bids. The Trials race—frequently touted as America’s greatest marathon—seems to be in danger of a similar fate. Only two cities were ever cited as showing any interest in hosting the 2024 edition; after Chattanooga was disqualified in another mini-scandal that is still playing out, Orlando seemed to be the winner by default. This does not bode particularly well for the future.
When it comes to fixing the Olympics, one idea that is frequently proposed is to give the Games a permanent home, or to rotate it between just a few cities; the idea is that this could help reduce costs by having a pre-set infrastructure already in place. What’s more, it could eliminate the rigmarole of the bidding process. Could something similar be the salvation for the U.S. Trials marathon? At the very least, having the race in the same location each time would allow the host to fine-tune their event with each iteration-—a win for the athletes. For better or worse, we already have a de facto permanent home for the Olympic Trials in track and field, which next summer will be staged in Eugene for the fifth consecutive time.
Brant Kotch, the former race director of the Houston Marathon who oversaw the city’s hosting of the Olympic Trials in 2012, told me that when his team tried to host the event again in 2016, part of their pitch was that they wanted to “make Houston the Eugene of long-distance road racing.” When Houston hosted in 2012, the event was a massive success; they had perfect weather and big-time performances from the stars of the sport. And, thanks largely to a million dollar grant from the state of Texas to help subsidize large-scale sporting events, they were able to host the race without taking too much of a financial hit. According to Kotch, Houston had a solid bid to host the 2016 Trials (one that was apparently unanimously approved by USATF’s Long Distance Running Division), but USATF’s leadership ultimately decided to give the race to Los Angeles. When we spoke, Kotch still sounded slightly bitter about being passed over.
Houston hasn’t tried to host the race again. There are some logistical reasons for this—for one, massive downtown construction projects in the intervening years have made the 2012 course obsolete—but economics are a significant factor. As someone open to the idea of a permanent home for the Trials, Kotch says that the only way that this will work, long-term, is for the sport’s national governing body to help subsidize the race: “With respect to its Olympic Trials, USATF has to pony up some amount of money. This is distance running. You can’t sell any tickets.”
Kenah agrees. He thinks that it would be in everyone’s best interest if USATF would incite competition between prospective host cities by promising some kind of revenue share system from one of its marquee events. (USATF did not respond to a request for comment on the suggestion that it should shoulder more of the cost to host the Trials.)
“Right now, you cannot make money hosting the Olympic Trials marathon,” Kenah told me. “I don’t care who you are or where you are, it’s just not possible with the current model.”
When I floated the idea of hosting the Olympic Trials marathon in the same place every Olympic cycle, Kenah told me that he was still very much in favor of moving the event to different cities. He mentioned that his father took him to see the Millrose Games in New York City when he was a kid. There was a distinct physical thrill to witnessing professional track and field up close that made him fall in love with the sport for life. (Kenah made the U.S. Olympic Team in 2000 and ran the 800-meters at the Sydney Olympics.)
“There is nothing better than experiencing the sport in person,” Kenah says. “If we had an Olympic Trials marathon in cities around the country, big and small, we would expose the sport in a very real, experiential way that otherwise kids of the next generation would not get. But that can be only accomplished if the current business model is just blown up.”