The Evolution of Triathlon Governance - How the USAT Became the Spoiled Child of the USOC

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Can the USAT serve its 50,000+ members largely made up of weekend warriors in search of age-group hardware, while catering to the small percent of elite or pro athletes?

By Ovetta Sampson Managing Editor

Psst. Psst. Hey you guys, did you know we have a governing body for the sport of triathlon? Yep, we actually have an institutionalized bureaucracy whose mission is to “provide excellence in leadership, structure and education for the growth and development of the sport. USA Triathlon's vision is to set the standard of excellence as a world leader in the sport by promoting a healthy lifestyle and encouraging participation and achievement.” Or so says its website. But from the forums and the amount of chatter you guys spread about, I doubt many of you know about USAT, the annual members, or realize the turmoil the organization has gone through in the last few years. And, more importantly, you may not realize what all this rigmarole may do to your goal of competing in triathlons.

The USAT is undergoing your basic identity struggle
Does Superman want to be a hero able to leap tall buildings in a single bound and save the world? Or does he want to be Clark Kent, fall in love with Lois, have three kids and live in suburbia? In the same vein, can the USAT serve its 50,000+ members largely made up of weekend warriors in search of age-group hardware, while catering to elite or pro athletes who make up a small percentage of the sport but bring in the gold glory of the Olympics?

To understand the internal crisis this identity struggle created at the USAT, you have to understand three things – the aggressive temperament of the triathlete, the inertia of bureaucracy and the propensity for miscommunication to erupt into hasty decisions.

The temperament of the triathlete
The triathlete is unique. Uniquely crazy some may say, but that’s not surprising. Consider our sport’s beginning. Don Shannan was an athlete but a mediocre one at best. According to his blog, Shannan was frustrated with his lack of wins in competitive running. He entered a biathlon race, where he swam and ran. A former swimmer in high school and college, he had a distinct advantage over people who could run but not swim. He came in middle of the pack and decided he liked it. In 1974 he got together with the folks from the San Diego Track Club and created the first triathlon. With a race entry fee of a buck, a six-mile run, five-mile bike and 500 m swim, the triathlon was born. Incredibly, Don remembers getting a call from the awards print shop asking how to spell “triathlon.” The word wasn’t in the dictionary. Nothing in the world like the triathlon existed.

Think about it. Our sport was has its genesis in the outsider-mentality. It’s a competition from innovators who didn’t let the fact that the word triathlon didn’t exist stop them from creating a new venture. The sport’s beginnings and its growth came from aggressive athletes who were looking for more and more ways to challenge themselves. Three years after the San Diego Track Club held the first triathlon, in Mission Bay a Navy Commander combined the three most grueling races in Hawaii to create the Ironman – 2.4 mile swim, 112-mile bike and a marathon. Geez, talk about crazy unique. How do you corral this level of intensity? How do you reign in this caliber of personality? The answer is you don’t, but the United States Olympic Committee thought that you could.

The inertia of bureaucracy

The 1980s was the adolescence of triathlons. Springing like a weed from the shores of southern California to the rest of the nation, the sport began to attract thousands of participants. Races began to pop up, with more than a 1,000 triathlons being conducted in 1984. With its popularity came increased risk, and associations were born. There was the United States Triathlon Association and the American Triathlon Association, both founded in 1982. Shortly thereafter, the two merged, becoming the US Triathlon Federation or Tri-Fed in late 1983. The beginning of the sport’s governance came from the athletes themselves. Race directors joined in also. Three years later, Tri-Fed met with the United States Olympic Committee, the governing body for most of the nonprofessional sports in the country.

With more than 5,000 members, the organization sought recognition status from the USOC. Many of the members were fighting to have triathlon recognized as an Olympic sport. But some of the earliest members were fighting to maintain the independent nature of the sport. Tri-Fed began growing membership by sanctioning races and having people become annual members. By 1989 Tri-Fed had more than 34,000 members.

Why Tri-Fed decided to partner with the USOC is an interesting question. It would seem that mixing a group of independent-minded athletes who had a good membership base and were doing fine on their own with an institution known for its didactic tactics in governance would be like combining oil and water. One could only speculate that, as the international reputation of triathlons began to grow (the International Triathlon Union or ITU held the first world triathlon championship in 1989), having a say in the world’s evolution of the sport became a priority for triathlon’s early founders. This also resulted in the push to get triathlon recognized as an Olympic sport. To do this, it was necessary to work with the USOC. And in 1997 the USOC officially recognized Tri-Fed, now called USA Triathlon, as an Olympic Sport organization. A marriage was born between a group mostly run by age-group athletes with a zealous love of their sport and a long-standing bureaucratic organization which wields power through what some may call heavy-handed strategies.

Miscommunications results in hasty decisions
What should have been a plus for the new sport quickly became a source of internal struggle. In 2000 triathlon was recognized as an Olympic sport. This huge move served to bring greater status to elite and pro-triathlon athletes who were seeking Olympic glory. The USOC, known for its mission to produce Olympic winners, also became more interested in triathlon, its governing body and its methods for supporting elite and pro-athletes.

The struggle between old-school age-groupers and new-school Olympic supports began to rear its ugly head. The struggle manifested itself in the election of national board members in 2003.

The USAT election of 2003 resulted in the seating of Valerie Gattis, Jim Girand and Diane Travis. Current and former board members immediately filed a compliant charging that the 2003 elections were improper. Restraining orders were filed. USAT long-time director Steve Locke resigned. The USAT was out of control.

The USOC stepped in, ordering an entirely new election. The fiasco resulted in lawsuits, arbitration hearings and a costly reelection campaign resulting in more than a $300,000 price tag. According to, the USAT was able to dodge a costly bullet not having to pay out hundreds of thousands of dollars, but still ended up paying money to aggrieved parties. That’s membership money, folks.

The infighting among board members forced the USOC to come in to exert some control. That action led to many board members resenting the USOC’s intrusion.
Concerned about governance, the USOC conducted a routine audit of the USAT’s operations and asked that several things be changed. The USOC was primarily concerned with the USAT’s governance, that the board was inefficient and not serving its membership. It was also concerned that there were too many age-group and race directors populating the board instead of former Olympic athletes. In addition, the USAT had not had an executive director for nine months, after long-time director Locke resigned.

The USOC began throwing its weight around. In press reports USOC officials began to grumble about “seizing the USAT’s assets” and taking over the board, stripping the federation’s status of official governing body away. It was big talk that didn’t sit well with USAT board members.

So in February this year, a month before the USAT’s national board meeting at its headquarters in Colorado Springs, long-time board member Jack Weiss introduced a resolution for USAT to secede from the USOC. It was a bombshell that spread throughout the membership. A front-page article in the L.A. Times sports section aired the group’s dirty laundry to all. The cat was out of the bag. There were serious problems at the USAT.

The journey to prominence resumes
At the meeting, which I attended, numerous concerns were aired. But the national board seemed to work it all out. Weiss’s resolution was withdrawn at the national meeting. The USAT board voted to reaffirm their relationship with the USOC. The USAT finally hired a new executive director, Skip Gilbert, the former marketing guy at Outside magazine and a real straight arrow. Things are looking rosy for the USAT as it struggles to gain its credibility back, get a stable board in place and promote the sport we all love.

But like the nagging pain of shin splints, turmoil hasn’t gone away. Weiss repeatedly has said that he can bring the resolution back anytime. An attorney has threatened to sue the board over an amendment to its bylaws allowing the board to change its bylaws without seeking membership input first. It seems like more of the same. But what does all this mean to the regular Jane and Joe of triathlons?

Plenty. Like it or not, the USAT is the most prominent representative of the sport of triathlon in the U.S. It governs how races are sanctioned, conducted and implemented. When you pay your $9 license fee with your entry fee to USAT races, that goes to the USAT, not the race directors or anybody else.

Whatever this board does, whatever direction it takes, affects your triathlon racing season. The USAT can decide to pull sanctioning of races in your area, resulting in many states losing racing venues. The USAT can sanction more races, resulting in many states getting more racing venues. It’s all related.

So when you sign up for a race, think about your USAT federation. What’s your USAT region? Do you know your USAT board members? Have you ever met them? Do you know how to contact them?

Bottom line, if you’re angry about the USAT leadership, then get involved. If you’re clueless about USAT problems, get educated. And if you care about triathlon’s future, become a USAT member and have a voice. Only you can make it happen.

Ovetta Sampson is currently the president of the USAT Rocky Mountain Region Board of Directors. This article does not reflect the opinion of the Rocky Mountain region.


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date: May 3, 2005


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New biz venture for me check it out:
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Love movies, singing (Karaoke), traveling, swimming, dancing and playing all kinds of card games. Love good food, better wine and even better entertainment.
Help children in poverty. Sponsor a child today.

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