At the 2016 Olympics, the United States topped the medal table in track and field with 13 golds, 10 silvers and nine bronze medals. America remained on top at the 2017 and ’19 world championships and U.S. track and field athletes were poised for another big summer in Tokyo.
Like the rest of the sports world, races around the world have been cancelled or postponed due to the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. On March 21, USA Swimming and USA Track and Field wrote letters to the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee to ask the International Olympic Committee to postpone the Games.
Two days later, and after weeks of mounting pressure, the IOC and Japanese government agreed to postpone the Tokyo Olympics to 2021. USA Track and Field quickly followed suit by rescheduling its trials. World Athletics also moved the 2021 track and field world championships, which are slated to be held in Eugene, Ore., at a newly renovated Hayward Field, to 2022.
USA Track and Field president Vin Lananna spoke with Sports Illustrated about the decision-making process and lead-up to the push for postponement. The following interview has been edited lightly for clarity.
SI: How has it been being the president of USA Track and Field in such unprecedented and strange times?
Vin Lananna: First and foremost, the question has been: “What can we do for the health and safety of the athletes, the officials and all those involved in the sport?” It’s been trying to navigate through what that means. It’s been quite a challenge. As everyone has seen, it changes by the day or by the hour. What we’ve done is listen to those who are experts in that field. We basically adhere to what we’ve been told and what the advice is. The second part is trying to listen to the athletes. There’s the mechanics of competing and then there’s the postponement and all the psychological things that go into it when something everyone has been looking forward to suddenly shifts. We’ve been reaching out to a lot of different people—mostly to athletes, officials and meet organizers. As a board, we’ve been trying to gather our own information because a lot of members of the board do things outside of track and field. They try to look at the economics of this. Those are all such small items than what’s best for the athletes and best for everyone from a safety and health perspective to get this behind us.
SI: When did you personally start to assess the severity of the coronavirus and what it might mean for the sport?
VL: Once I started to hear about the cases in China, I can’t say that I was extremely focused on it, but I started following it in January. I paid pretty close attention to what was going on and it was because of the World Indoor Championships in China. I was attuned to that and how we’d actually do that or what precautions we could take.
SI: When did you feel like the Olympics might need to get postponed?
VL: I think it was in late February. Quite honestly, it was probably triggered by postponing the World Indoor Championships. I started to think about the Olympics and then it became really clear to me from talking to a lot of the athletes and then once the tracks started closing, gyms started closing. We started to really listen to the athletes about how they were going to prepare or what are they preparing for. As you watched Italy’s lockdown and then what’s happening in Spain and France, independent of the U.S., you wonder how are all these people going to end up in one place? It was just unfathomable to me that we could have a global event this year.
SI: Was there a personal preference for you between later in 2020, 2021 or beyond?
VL: For me, the later we could do it, the better. I feel as though, having an opportunity to have a vaccine and confidence that it works or testing can take place, everything is grounded in what’s the safest place to have it. For me, I was always a proponent for doing it as late as possible.
SI: The 2021 World Championships in Eugene, Ore., are a project that you’ve been pretty involved in. They’ve moved it to 2022. What was your reaction to that decision?
VL: Long before it was 2021 or 2019, I felt that the United States should be hosting a world championship. I’m just happy it’s happening. Whenever it is and they’re committed for it to happen. When it happens is less of an issue for me than it does happen. It’s important to the sport. It’s important that the world’s No. 1 team has an opportunity to compete at home. I think that the world championships will highlight the personalities and stories of our athletes that have dominated on the world stage for such a long time. We have the ability to make them into household names.
When Ashton Eaton was with us at Oregon and then competed for the Oregon Track Club and won world championships and set the world record, inside Eugene, he was well-known. Any place else and outside of Oregon in the United States, there wasn’t really any recognition. That just baffled me. I came to the realization that the only way we’re going to ever change that narrative in the U.S. is to have the world championships in the U.S. I don’t care when it is but that it will happen.
SI: In those conversations with athletes and coaches, what was the No. 1 concern among them?
VL: The obvious issue was the athletes’ safety. The demographic according to the models and evidence of those who have tested positive is not as much the athletes but no one wants to be responsible for spreading this. Their safety was key. Not too far was their profession, their ability to make a living, their contracts and their preparations to be their best to make the Olympic team. Every young kid if they’re in track, gymnastics or swimming, and you asked them what their dream is, it’s to make the Olympic team. All of a sudden, trying to balance that aspiration to perform at a high level and make that compromise was stressful. You’re not able to be at 100% of where you should be.
SI: USA Swimming was the first to come out with their statement pushing the USOPC to call for a postponement. Behind the scenes, how soon after that was USA Track and Field involved with its own internal discussions about that?
VL: It was happening simultaneously. We were having those discussions at a board level. The USA Track & Field Athletes Advisory Committee had been having those discussions. We had three active athletes in the AAC, someone who represents the coaches and other people in that circle. All of them were talking to other athletes. We had a board meeting scheduled for the day before we put the letter out. Many things were on the agenda but it was all taken over by the question of “What do we do.” At the same time, the national office with CEO Max Sigel and his crew were talking to their COVID-19 taskforce who was studying what the CDC was saying as well as state and local guidelines. There were a lot of groups that were talking about this and it all came together in that same timeframe.
SI: How difficult is it going to be to reschedule the entire sports calendar? What are the challenges that may arise from that?
VL: Like IOC President Thomas Bach said, it’s a gigantic jigsaw puzzle. It’s actually a global calendar for 2021, ‘22, ‘23 and ‘24. You have the Olympic Games in Paris in 2024, which is where I see almost the finish line. I see the finish line as 2028 Olympics. I think that is a critical time for the United States and what our sport looks like. It’s a gigantic jigsaw puzzle but with all of those forward thinking and visionary perspectives, you have a chance to re-do things in an exciting and reimagined way. That’s what all the leaders are trying to get to. It will be very complicated but if we play it correctly and once we get through all of the practical issues—and we have real issues here as it related to health —once we can get through that, it gives us the opportunity to lay this out one step at a time.
I like to look at it as Olympic Games in ‘21, ‘24 and ‘28. That period of time with all those world championships, Commonwealth Games, European Championships, Olympic trials, U.S. championships and some of the more traditional events like Penn Relays or Drake Relays, this gives us an opportunity to do something with those and rethink how we’ve done our business, participate, present the event and how people consume it.
SI: Right now, it looks like the Olympics will stay on the calendar for a similar timeline but for 2021. It may be early on in discussions, but do you think Trials are on that same timeline?
VL: There’s a calendar group that’s working on that. I’m sure there’s many more factors involved in it. There’s the television broadcast. There’s the World Athletics calendar. There’s the IOC deadline. Then you talk about some practical things like facilities. What’s become really obvious to me is a dependence upon university facilities. Many have talked about it for a long time. Now it’s become clear that our whole sport in the U.S. has a strong dependency on universities and NCAA institutions. There’s a lot of factors. I don’t know when the Olympic Trials will be. I would suspect that there will be a timeline based on the number of weeks prior to the Olympic Games and when the team needs to be selected.
SI: No one has the clear answer to this yet but I’m curious of your thoughts: When do you think we’ll see track and field again?
VL: Well, I’d answer it in a different way. Let’s put a line out there in the sand of where in 2020 we can have it. Have it as late as possible and work backwards from there. When we’re going to start? No one is going to know the answer to that.
SI: As a coach, what measures do you think have to be taken for athletes to feel safe about returning to competition?
VL: Trusting and listening to all the science. You think of all the doctors and healthcare professionals who are working around the clock and trying to have people be safe, we’re going to have to do a gathering of information to determine what really are the steps. I know they’re all studying it from an experiential standpoint but what’s the science behind it. I don’t know. I think all of the athletes and coaches would be divided between what’s the most aggressive way to get going and what’s the conservative way. Somewhere between those two will be the answer. Right now, for me, I’m more focused on how we do what we’re supposed to do to have this unprecedented time come to an end so we can have people feel safe interacting with people. What does a cross country meet happening in the fall look like with social distancing? Obviously, we’re not going to start if it’s not safe. If it does start, we’re going to be thinking of what does social distancing look like in any athletic event, whether it’s a football game or basketball game.
SI: There could be a potential running boom that comes out of this since people are limited in forms of exercise and more people are starting to run. As someone who has been in the sport for so long, what do you think this could mean for the sports’ popularity and how can you bridge that gap between those doing this for their health and those who follow the sport?
VL: You know from experience that gyms are constantly packed. Now, they’re all closed. Everyone is getting more accustomed to running for their form of exercise. I’m not talking about the people who are preparing for a marathon or a race. You’re exactly right. There’s a possibility this does turn into a big running boom because people are going back to basics. What can you do for exercise? You can go out for a brisk walk or you can run. I see it around Charlottesville. So many people are out running. It’s clear that all of those people who were in gyms and are now on the streets running and six feet apart. Our future will be very different. Specifically, they’ll find it easier and cheaper to use running as their main source of fitness.