At the Bird's Nest Stadium in Beijing last August, American athletes took home a total of 23 Olympic medals. More than any other country, that tally might have looked impressive to some but not all. It was paltry enough to prompt the head of USA Track and Field to order an urgent inquiry into what he considered a "seriously deficient performance" by the team. Five months later, an investigative panel has just issued a 69-page report, examining what went wrong and explaining how it can be put right in time for London in 2012. There, the USATF has already set a goal of winning 30 "clean medals". Nothing if not goal-oriented these people.
At times sounding like a cross between a Cork hurlers' manifesto, a classic Roy Keane rant, and one of those fabled FAI Genesis reports of old, the work of Project 30, as the group was called, makes for interesting and, in some cases, familiar reading. Amongst 20 other gems, there are recommendations for a reduction in the size of the blazer brigade being sent to every event, for anybody who hasn't made an international impact by the age of 25 to receive no more funding, and for an athletes' union to be created and supported in order to give a proper voice to the runners in between Olympiads.
The competitors themselves aren't spared the rod either. Their overall professionalism is questioned on several occasions. One Olympian is castigated for throwing a strop because there was no television in her room in Beijing's village. Others are accused of lacking the independence and character to be able to adapt to the changed conditions and peculiar stresses they faced when taken out of their comfort zones and forced to work without their personal coaches on hand. More are judged to have shot their bolt long before they arrived in China.
The task force discovered some of the country's very best prospects actually jeopardised their medal chances almost as soon as they'd formally qualified for the team at the national trials. How? Well, instead of continuing to prepare for China, many of them began flying to and from Europe, chasing the appearance money to be made from their new-found status. In effect, they messed up their schedules to pocket a few cheques of $2000 or so when an Olympic medal of any hue is estimated to be worth a minimum of $100,000 to any American in any sport.
In order to avoid others making the same mistake, Project 30 wants the USATF to establish a permanent training camp in Europe for the team for the duration of summer 2012. As soon as the trials have ended, the athletes will decamp to this base and remain there to prepare for London. In a move that may alert the Mardyke and Morton Stadiums about a unique opportunity, they also want to try to promote meets where the team will compete en masse to raise the profile of the athletes around the continent.
The denizens of Irish athletics may also be interested to note their American counterparts have identified the jumping and throwing events as the best way to increase the medal haul in the short term. That's only one of a number of thought-provoking observations. How about the demand that "legends" of other eras give back as mentors to the current generations? Or the contention that an ongoing failure to embrace sports science, in general, and biomechanics, in particular, is hampering the chances of middle-distance runners?
"One multiple medal-winning athlete said the USATF programme that contributed most to his success was sport science analysis provided by USATF to his personal coach," says the report. "Cutting-edge sport science is available to every event group, but they leverage it to different degrees. Sprints and hurdles are the most receptive to the application of sport science, while the distance events are most resistant to it. In one coach's words, American distance runners and coaches focus almost exclusively on physiology and endurance training, while it is biomechanics that is the difference between winning a medal and not making a final."
All of these observations pale next to the most controversial and (strangely enough) least-publicised recommendation. Putting the onus on USATF to do more to change the sport's doping culture, Project 30 wants the introduction of a rule demanding exposed cheats who want to return after suspension be forced to make a legal deposition. In this, they must first fully disclose the names of all those who assisted them in sourcing or using steroids. A wonderful (if legally troublesome) idea, some may also snicker at the fact Carl Lewis, a man whose own illustrious career is now besmirched by allegations of drug-use cover-ups, is the most famous contributor to and the main spokesman for the report.
And there's another part of the problem. Those of us who stopped believing in this sport a long time ago might argue that, given the recent spate of cheating in the United States and the dubious (yes, we know, nothing has been proven) nature of Jamaica's successes last year, the only thing wrong with the Americans is they can't access the best drugs anymore.