Nick Symmonds: USATF Needs to “Be Burned to the Ground”

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 Andy Lyons / Getty Images

Reigning American 800-meter champion and two-time Olympian Nick Symmonds has been officially booted from Team USA ahead of this month’s IAAF World Championships in Beijing for refusing to sign the team’s “bullshit” terms of conditions. The agreement would have required him, a Brooks-sponsored athlete, to wear Nike nearly head-to-toe to an unclear list of “official” team functions. 

“I’m doing this because it’s in the best interest of the athletes and of the sport,” Symmonds says. “At 31, I understand I’ve only got a few more years of running left in my legs, and like I said, my rule is to leave the campsite better than I found it.” 

Never shy with the media, Symmonds opened up about his frustrations with USATF, and about what needs to change before next summer’s Olympics in Rio.

How mad are you about being left off the team?
I’m upset and disappointed. I thought we could reach an agreement that would fulfill USATF’s obligations and also protect athletes’ interests, but they wouldn’t budge. They wouldn’t even negotiate. That really makes me sad for the athletes, for myself, and for the state of track and field. I put everything I had into competing in Beijing. Now I’m just really not sure what to do.

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USATF spokesperson Jill Geer compared their apparel restrictions to LeBron James wearing an Adidas jersey during games. Is that a fair comparison?
That’s absurd. That really shows how out of touch they are with reality. The NBA has a business model that shares over 50 percent of revenue with the athletes, and according to the study by economist Andrew Zimbalist, USATF is sharing 8 percent. We’ll shut up when USATF starts paying salaries to every athlete on Team USA, but right now that’s not happening.

You’ve been a thorn in USATF’s side for a long time. Do you think this fight has become personal for them?
No, this isn’t personal at all. I’ve been in the sport for ten years, and I’ve seen USATF muddle things up time and time again. In 2012, it was the coin flip situation with Jeneba Tarmoh and Allyson Felix. Last year, it was Gabriele Grunewald’s disqualification scandal. USATF has repeatedly shown that it’s not competent enough to govern this sport. When all is said and done, it’s an organization that either needs to be burned to the ground or given a radical overhaul.

Why take this stand now instead of December’s USATF annual meeting?
I’ve been to those annual meetings, and they’re basically a showcase of USATF’s incompetence. People are screaming at one another. People are swearing. That’s not how anything gets accomplished. I’m doing this because it’s in the best interest of the athletes and of the sport. At 31, I understand I’ve only got a few more years of running left in my legs, and like I said, my rule is to leave the campsite better than I found it. The campsite is real dirty right now, but it’s not enough just to complain. We need to make changes.

What’s it going to take to resolve this dispute?
If history is any indication, USATF only does what’s right when it’s threatened by litigation. That might be what it takes. Moving forward, I could really use a great legal mind to help direct me. I’m a runner and an entrepreneur and a gum-slinger, but I’m not a lawyer.

What specific changes need to happen before next summer’s Olympics?
We need to fix the statement of conditions, because it’s going to be a problem for USATF again next year if they try to shove it on people. We also need to increase the revenue sharing with athletes. The Olympic Games are definitely going to draw attention to the sport, so hopefully some increased scrutiny will force USATF to start treating the athletes right.

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What does it mean for track and field to have Nick Symmonds missing from the biggest competition of the year?
It’s not good for the sport when the U.S. doesn’t send its best team to worlds. I won USAs, so I have to think I should be going to Beijing. USATF is taking three very qualified athletes, but in my opinion they’re not taking the best team.

Where do you plan to watch the world championships?
I don’t know. I haven’t figured it out yet. The thought of sitting on my couch and watching it is almost too much to bear. If I surround myself with some friends and family, maybe I’ll be able to get through it.