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5 Insights About the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Team

By Brian Metzler

1. Nike Still Rules the Track

As far as brands go, Nike is still the dominant brand in track and field, with several dozen Olympic team members backed by the Swoosh in distance disciplines, sprints and field events on this year’s U.S. Olympic team roster bound for Tokyo later this month. But, from a U.S. point of view, several other brands have made big strides since 2016, including New Balance, which had five athletes make the team (Trayvon Bromell in the 100m, Gabby Thomas in the 200m, Emma Coburn in the 3,000m steeplechase, Emily Sisson in the 10,000m, Sydney McLaughlin in the 400m hurdles, and the trio of Ellie Purrier, Cory McGee and Heather MacLean in the 1,500m).

Meanwhile, On Running gained its first Olympic track and field athletes, garnering two U.S. spots from its newly formed On Athletics Club team (Joe Klecker and Alicia Monson both in the 10,000m), plus Jake Riley in the marathon not to mention three other OAC track and field athletes from Australia (Olli Hoare, 1,500m, and Morgan McDonald, 5,000m) and Poland (Alicja Konieczek, 3,000m steeplechase) among 20 other international athletes in track and field and triathlon. HOKA, meanwhile, claims three U.S. Olympians (Aliphine Tuliamuk, marathon, Hilary Bor, 3,000m steeplechase, Rachel Schneider, 5,000m), plus eight others globally, while resurgent Puma has sprinter Jenna Prandini (100m, 200m) and marathoner Molly Seidel. Most of those brands, including Nike, released new shoes for the Olympic year — including the just-released and now sold-out Cloudboom Echo from On — but they had to be approved by World Athletics months in advance to be permissible for competition.

2. More Success for the American Distance Project

Although it retains a bit of a low-profile vibe, the Colorado Springs-based American Distance Project (ADP) coached by Scott Simmons has produced seven U.S. Olympians in track and field since 2016. Most of the athletes, but not all, are native Kenyans who have gained U.S. citizenship. (One notable exception is HOKA athlete Joe Gray, a two-time world champion trail runner.) ADP athletes Paul Chelimo (Nike, 5,000m) and Hilary Bor (HOKA, 3,000m steeplechase) are both returning in their events and considered medal contenders after strong showings in Rio, where Chelimo won the silver medal and Bor placed eight. Benard Keter (U.S. Army WCAP) will also be competing in the 3,000m steeplechase after taking second to Bor at the U.S. Olympic Trials. (In addition to Chelimo and Bor, the ADP also sent Shadrack Kipchirchir and Leonard Korir to the Rio Olympics in the 10,000m.) Also Tokyo-bound are British Olympian Sam Atkins (10,000m) and U.S. Paralympic athlete Mikey Brannigan (1,500m), who occasionally train with the group.

The team has both professional runners sponsored by Nike and Hoka, as well as members of the U.S. Army’s World-Class Athlete Program (WCAP), which provides some financial and gear support from Nike.

“Our goal when we started in 2012 was to qualify athletes for the Olympic Trials, and now the goal is to make the team and win medals,” says Simmons, who is seeking a corporate sponsor for the ADP group. “In my opinion, we’re in the best place in the U.S., and maybe even the world, to train, based on the variety of elevations we can train at.”

3. Rule 40 Frustrations

July 13 is the cutoff date for brands other than Nike planning to promote or celebrate their Olympic athletes. The International Olympic Committee’s controversial Rule 40 has been adjusted a bit since the 2016 Olympics, but it still means that On, New Balance, Puma and other brands cannot mention the Olympics, show the Olympic rings or other Olympic symbols or begin or increase advertising/marketing campaigns from July 13 to Aug. 10. The individual athletes are limited to a singular post that thanks their sponsors during that time frame, but they still cannot show any Olympics materials trademarked by the IOC. Nike, however, is considered an Olympic partner and is the official footwear and apparel provider for the U.S. track and field team.

On has been promoting the OAC’s success in a five-part docuseries with segments titled “Starting,” “Building,” “Training,” “Racing” that highlight the team’s journey through the past year. The final video in the series, “Dreaming,” launched on July 1. “We’d do a lot more branding around that if there wasn’t Rule 40, but at the end of the day people are going to see our success for what it is,” says On global sports marketing manager Steve DeKoker. “Having runners achieve Olympic success is kind of the ultimate validation for a brand. At the end of the day, I think people will recognize that and see that for what it is.”

4. Kara Goucher

Kara Goucher has received high marks from athletes and fans in her debut season as a color analyst for NBC’s track and field coverage leading up to the Olympics. The two-time U.S. Olympian made her broadcast debut in the spring by supplying insights for events ranging from 800m to 10,000m at the Drake Relays and USATF Grand Prix meets. She also joined the NBC team of Ato Boldon, Paul Swangard, Lewis Johnson, Trey Hardee and Sonya Richards-Ross for the U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, and provided smart insights, accurate commentary and the savvy presence of a veteran analyst. She’ll be part of NBC’s Olympic broadcast in Tokyo, when nine days of track and field events begin on Friday, July 30 from Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium. Goucher is affiliated with Altra as a runner, but will be wearing the Nike logo as part of NBC’s broadcast team. She had a bad falling out with Nike in 2013 after her contract wasn’t fully honored when she was pregnant.

5. More Sha’Carri Richardson Fall-Out

Was it a shock that sprint sensation Sha’Carri Richardson was kept off the U.S. Olympic team as a member of the 4x100-meter relay team because of her positive test for marijuana? Not to many other U.S. athletes on the team, who have privately and subtly shown support of the United States Track & Field (USATF) decision, even though marijuana is not considered a performance-enhancing drug by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). Richardson, a Nike athlete, won the 100m at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, in a blazing 10.86 seconds but her routine drug test after the race apparently indicated she was higher than WADA’s allowable 180ng/ml standard for Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive component of cannabis. It’s interesting to note that most drug tests in the workplace are set at 50ng/ml for a positive test, whereas WADA’s revised standard was updated prevent violation of one-off users. Richardson, the No. 2 ranked 100m runner in the world behind Jamaica’s Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, will have a chance at redemption at the 2022 World Championships at Hayward Field in Eugene.

But numerous pro athletes in other sports and politicians have shown support for her case, including NFL star QB Patrick Mahomes, who said on ESPN’s First Take, "She put in the work. Even though she made a mistake, like we all make mistakes ... to not let her be at the Olympics at all is pretty ridiculous to me." U.S. Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), who went so far as to write to leaders of the U.S. and world anti-doping agencies to overturn their decisions. A petition aimed at overturning her failed drug test has been signed by nearly 600,000 supporters as of Friday morning. The petition named "Let Sha'Carri Run!" was created by MoveOn Civic Action, a progressive lobbying group. As much as U.S. marijuana laws have lessened and favored legalization at the state level (including Oregon, where Richardson was tested), it’s strictly an international issue for WADA. Few countries are close to the relaxed stance of the U.S. There is also concern of the possibility of marijuana being used as a masking agent to hide the appearance of other substances.