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ANALYSIS : Track, Field Are Key Chip in '96 Hand of Olympic Poker

October 09, 1994|ELLIOTT ALMOND and AND RANDY HARVEY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

With the 1996 Summer Olympics still nearly two years away, it is curious that the schedules for competition in all sports but the flagship event, track and field, have been approved.

"Somebody had to be last, I guess," said Amadeo Francis of Puerto Rico, a member of track's international federation committee in charge of scheduling.

If only it was that simple.

Although International Amateur Athletic Federation and Olympic organizers say the process takes time, it might also turn out that it takes money.

In the behind-the-scenes deal-making that often dictates Olympic movements, it appears that IAAF President Primo Nebiolo of Italy is using the Atlanta Games' track schedule as a pawn to bring in more money for his group and to boost the lagging popularity of his sport in the United States.

Although the IAAF Council must approve the track schedule, Nebiolo has the final say.

Nebiolo is saying that the finals, which draw wide television audiences, might be scheduled for prime time in Europe. That would put them on in the heat of the Georgia afternoon, prime time for neither the athletes nor the TV-viewing public in the United States.

Nebiolo apparently is hoping to push NBC, which has the U.S. television rights to the Games, into agreeing to televise more of other IAAF events at higher rates if the Olympic finals are moved into U.S. prime time. That would mean more money for IAAF coffers, more television coverage from NBC and, presumably, rejuvenation of U.S. track interest.

According to Sports Intern, a German publication, Nebiolo also wants the Atlanta Committee of the Olympic Games (ACOG) to pay more for a proposed expanded schedule. ACOG is considering holding track and field events over nine or 10 days, an increase from the eight-day program used in previous Olympics.

The publication reported that an extra day of track competition would yield at least $2.5 million extra in ticket sales.

Nebiolo is arguing that NBC will benefit from the increased track program and, thus, should pay more for coverage of the 1995 World Championships in Sweden, and guarantee coverage of the 1997 championships in Mexico City.

"It just cannot be that the 1995 World Championships are only worth very little, when one year later the Olympic track and field events are a big hit with the same program and same athletes," one IAAF Council member told Sport Intern.

That Nebiolo would work to renew track interest in the United States indicates the IAAF's lack of confidence in USA Track & Field, the sport's national governing body.

The IAAF has long been concerned about USA track's ineffectiveness against the decline of the sport in a nation that produces some of the world's best athletes, but barely acknowledges it.

Nebiolo sees the Atlanta Games as an opportunity to market the sport here. The fallout could be the downfall of longtime USA track leader Ollan Cassell, who has a cool relationship with Nebiolo.

"It's sad that the state of track and field as a sport has fallen so low in the United States that the IAAF has to target us as a developing nation in terms of trying to build popularity and interest," said Craig Masback, a former Olympic runner and television commentator.

Although not formally positioned to challenge Cassell, USA track's executive director, Masback is being mentioned as a possible replacement if Nebiolo is successful in upsetting the balance of power.

Such rumblings occur periodically in track, upon which Cassell has held a firm grip for two decades.

But if Nebiolo is behind the campaign, a coup might have a chance.

"We would like to work with the U.S. federation," Nebiolo said last August in Paris. "We have offered our assistance many times, but they have never responded."

Cassell said USA track has long welcomed outside assistance.

"But it has to be in coordination here with what we're doing," he said from his Indianapolis office.

Nebiolo apparently has not involved Cassell, an IAAF vice president, in his attempts to use Atlanta's track schedule as leverage for increased marketing.

"The United States has no marketing plan whatsoever," Masback said. "The IAAF has to take aggressive steps to develop a plan for television, sponsorships and marketing. There is no vision whatsoever nationally."

Cassell disagrees. He said USA track has planned some programs for the next two years that will coincide with the Olympics.

Cassell is well aware of IAAF efforts to undermine his leadership. But he said he is not concerned about the recent developments.

IAAF involvement in the United States is not unprecedented. When the New York Games were about to fold, IAAF money helped keep them afloat.

But Nebiolo is a formidable opponent. If his manipulations are successful, it would not be the first time.

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