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The Visionary: An Interview with Vin Lananna

The president of TrackTown USA talks track, coaching, doping and more.

A perennial winning coach at the University of Oregon, Stanford, Dartmouth and Oberlin College, Vin Lananna is now one of track and field’s foremost impresarios, having organized the past two U.S. Olympic Trials, the past three NCAA outdoor championships and the 2014 IAAF World Junior Championships in Eugene, Ore., in his current role as president of TrackTown USA. Lananna, who also serves as an associate athletic director at the U of O, won bids to host the 2016 IAAF World Indoor Championships in Portland, Ore., in March, and is bringing the 2021 IAAF World Championships to America for the first time—in Eugene, of all places. But he hasn’t hung up his stopwatch for good: Lananna, 62, will also be head coach of the U.S. track and field team at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

How’s Portland 2016 coming along?

Portland 2016 is going well. There’s an enormously strong reception, especially from the city officials, and I think the entire state of Oregon has embraced it. When I was in Beijing there was enormous interest and enthusiasm from different federations from around the world who have really expressed a great deal of enthusiasm and excitement for coming to the United States for the World Indoor Championships. We think we’ll have a really great indoor event, and I think the athletes will be received warmly and there’ll be great competition.

Why is it important that the IAAF World Championships take place on American soil?

It’s our obligation and our honor to host the Worlds in a country, which, on the global stage, is central to the sport of track and field. I think that the United States has a unique responsibility to do our part to develop and to perpetuate the popularity of track and field in our own country and across the globe. More selfishly speaking, it’s just like you would not want to have a great football team or soccer team and never compete in your home community.

Why are the World Championships so rarely held in the U.S.?

I think I would best quote Allyson Felix, who came with us in Monaco when we presented, and she said when she first heard that the United States was bidding for the World Championships and for people like herself and the next generation to have the opportunity to compete at home, she said to herself, it’s about time. And I think it is about time that the United States stepped up. We’ve formed a partnership with USA Track and Field and we feel as though we’re going to present them something very special. We have five and a half years now to build up the interest in the United States, and I feel a certain level of urgency. As to what’s the reason? I think there are a lot of reasons. Some of them are financial. Some of them are not having a facility. Some of it’s the corporate sponsorship. Some of it’s our lack of government support for athletic events. So I have to applaud the people of the state of Oregon in particular for embracing this opportunity.

What’s the secret to putting on a successful event?

Our mission is always to make every event that we do athlete-centric and athlete–focused. And we do. But secondly it’s important that the spectators have an exciting experience that’s easily accessible and entertaining. In the United States people only have so much discretionary time, and we need to streamline our events so that people can come and enjoy them rather than have all this dead time in between events. And I think another element that we don’t generally take strong advantage of is engaging our media partners. Whether it’s digital, broadcast, print media or social media. We will do our best to ensure that we change with the times and provide the great experience so that we have a great story that centers around the athletes.

Why is the elite distance-running field so deep these days?

About 20 years ago, many of the coaches in the country got together, wondering why we weren’t better on the world stage. Those reasons were funding, competitive opportunities and having good training partners. If we put all those things together, we thought we should be able to channel that energy into high-end performances. I think we had hit a low back in the early ’90s, and I think now you can see with the distance runners that they have reemerged and reinvented themselves.

Why are you at the center of everything track-related?

Lots of people have talked about the World Championships; you’ve got to get somebody that’s really going to drive it. Somehow I often find myself in that role— probably because I’m a glutton for punishment. But seriously, I care deeply about our sport. I’ve learned so much from the sport of track and field personally and professionally. I believe it’s the foundation for all other sports. I believe that it’s exciting. I believe that access to the sport is not as complicated as some of the other sports, and I think that we just have to be sure we stay focused on the right things. And the right things are not forgetting that we have spectators and media that we have to pay attention to.

What will you do to ensure the 2016 U.S. Olympic team is successful?

If you have great athletes and a great team, you need to create an esprit des corps. The athletes need to be confident in their own performances but also they need to be able to do the things all along the way to compete at the highest level—from their training and their interaction with their coaches to picking the right competitive opportunities for them so that they’re well prepared to peak at the appropriate time. And we’ll create a great, exciting environment at the Olympic Trials. I’m in the fortunate role of handling them at Hayward Field, and hopefully that momentum spills over and sets them up appropriately for Rio. The thing is, the more popular and the more recognizable that we can make our athletes within our own country, it takes the hopes and dreams with the rest of the country with them. And as we know, every time you have a team, whether it’s the New York Yankees or the United States of America Olympic track and field team, there’s a lot that goes with it if you’ve got a great community behind you. This is a national quest and sense of national civic pride that we have the best team in the world, and that’s what we need to make sure we stay on top of.

Eugene has faced criticism for its anointment as the epicenter of American track and field. Why is it worthy of being the sport’s hometown?

I think you have a certain expectation when one comes to Eugene and competes at Hayward Field. That the athletes and spectators are going to have, the media’s going to have, and I think everything about it shows our sport well on a global level. Now, I’m not so provincial to think that we’re the only place that should host the sport of track and field. Yes, I would absolutely like to see it in greater media markets and larger populations. But while we may not have the number of people and the infrastructure that some of these larger cities have, we’ll create a great, great environment for the sport of track and field. And you have to focus on what your product is, not what someone else’s product is.

So I think that we can take this model, and what my hope is—and why we’re instituting this TrackTown Summer Series—we believe we can create that same excitement around other media pockets. We will continue to focus our attention on the athletes and creating great products and having the Hayward-tested, TrackTown-approved format. And that’s the mantra that we’ll take on the Summer Series that we plan to put into place next summer.

This has been a five-year ramp-up. We didn’t wake up last week and decide to do this. Everything we do has a long-term plan. I like to look over the horizon and not just think about what we’re doing in three weeks, but what might this look like in five years, 10 years. That’s why we did the World Championships, and that’s why all these other initiatives have been built around this line in the sand in 2021. It is an absolute goal for us to shift the paradigm of how we do the sport of track and field in this country. And we have an absolute timeline. We have a five-year ramp-up and buildout before we use the 2021 platform to have the United States be not only the best track and field country in the medal count, but also be the best track and field county with regard to the events and with regard to the popularity in the sport.

What’s the secret to successful coaching?

When you coach at a number of different places, you find there are some fundamental areas of common ground in all of these athletes. I think the whole key is individualizing the needs of each athlete and catering your program to them as opposed to having the athlete cater to the program. Then, if you have a good product, like anything else, you have a better opportunity to sell that, and that’s what good coaching’s all about: Be able to say what you’re doing, have people believe in it and be confident—and then get out of the way and let ’em compete.

What are track’s biggest challenges?

I think the challenges are in our ability to be able to unify with different constituencies, which are necessary for the sport to be successful. Let me give you a specific example: We have these great youth programs. Lots of little kids compete in these different youth Olympics, junior Olympics and all that. Then you go to a high school level and you have tracks everywhere. Almost every high school has a track and a bunch of kids competing. Then you have the greatest development program in the universe, the college program. I don’t think any country, Olympic group or federation spends more money on our sport. Division I programs—I’m not even talking about II and III—spend somewhere between 500 and 600 million dollars per year. And I’m not talking about facilities, I’m talking about coaching, equipment, competitive opportunities, training groups, medical, travel. Show me any organization that spends that much money on our sport. And out of that program we develop our Olympic program, the number-one team in the world. The challenge we have is getting all these different communities to come together. So if we could actually get all the officials, the youth programs, the USA Track and Field associations, Long-Distance Running committee, the walkers to all go in the same direction, we have this great opportunity to be able to commercialize that. And we’ve not been able to do it, because everybody’s pulling in all directions. I’m not saying everyone has to hold hands—because there’s going to be turf wars, land grabs and all of that—but we just seem to be going in so many directions that we’re not able to capitalize on what we’re known for, which is having these great, phenomenal athletes.

How prevalent is doping from your vantage point? It’s always a bit of a mystery to fans.

Well I don’t know that my opinion is something that I should put forth as being an expert in the area, but … our athletes are tested so much. More than in any other sport. I think that we have to recognize that these are great athletes and therefore they’re going to achieve really great things. We can only spend so much time speaking about the positive test results rather than talking about the number of people who are tested that are no problem. I don’t bury my head in the sand and say that everybody’s doing everything 100 percent correctly, but I think we have good anti-doping mechanisms in place, we just need to be sure that we are transparent with that information. Because it does hurt us. When people in the stands doubt that something extraordinary they see is not really extraordinary, it hurts us. And therefore we need to be careful—and people need to be careful with their comments. And I will say the other thing that is a problem for the sport is the negativity of those people who speak anonymously about these things, and how hurtful and how harmful that is for a sport that they love. Everybody’s really passionate, but we need to make sure that our passion is channeled in a way that actually gets us the result that we want to get.