The Latest in Road Running for Race Directors and Industry Professionals
Race Director Rich Kenah Opens Up About the Atlanta Olympic Trials
By Phil Stewart
Atlanta Track Club Executive
Director Rich Kenah provided an inside narrative about the 2020 Olympic
Trials Marathons—properly known as the U.S. Olympic Team Trials
Marathon—including the challenges down the road for 2024 and beyond.
Road Race Management (RRM): What was your overall assessment of the
Rick Kenah (RK): Atlanta Track Club set out to build an athlete-centric,
inclusive weekend for everyone in the "runner life-cycle." The Olympic
Trials were the centerpiece of a long weekend of running, jumping and
throwing and the Olympic Marathon hopefuls did not disappoint—they put
on a heck of a show. And I couldn't be more proud of how our staff,
board, volunteers and city stepped up and out. The weekend confirmed
what we already knew—Atlanta is Running City USA.
RRM: What were your biggest challenges?
RK: Our goals for the weekend were many. So our biggest challenge was
time management. In other words, balancing our staff time across the
Trials, Publix Atlanta Marathon, Expo Experience, HS events, marketing,
and volunteers in a way they would deliver on our promise of a special
weekend for all. We are no strangers to big events. The AJC Peachtree
Road Race is the world's largest 10K, but we've had 50 years to iron out
the kinks. We were learning as we went on this one so we weren't quite
sure how to distribute our most precious resource—staff time.
RRM: I assume, but want to confirm, that Coca-Cola supported the trials
in a major way. It seems like having them as a USOC sponsor and
obviously a big supporter of Atlanta must have made a huge difference,
as I know other trials venues have suffered greatly by the USOPC's tight
controls over sponsorships.
RK: Coca-Cola is a complex organization. We approached Coca-Cola
United—the local bottler and our day-to-day partner, as well as those
who manage their Olympic relationship at Coca-Cola's headquarters. We
asked Coca-Cola and Coke United to help us provide a true Atlanta
experience for all those involved in the weekend, and they obliged in a
big way. The collaboration was not built on financial support though. It
was focused on elevating the weekend's experience and raising the
visibility of these Trials in Coca-Cola's hometown. This included, among
other things, a welcome dinner for Trials athletes at the company's
global headquarters and the commitment to promote America's Marathon
Weekend through and in their many media assets. This would not have been
possible if Coca-Cola was not a long-time partner of the USOC and the
I would add that Publix is the title partner of the Atlanta Marathon,
which was the day after the Trials. There are many, many Coca-Cola
brands available for sale through Publix. This provided all kinds of
added value to Coke, Publix, Atlanta Track Club, spectators and most
importantly the 15,000+ participants throughout the weekend.
It was a well-arranged marriage of an Olympic partner with a non-Olympic
partner (Publix) who could help activate in a big way.
RRM: It seems like you were the first individual who understood the [USOPC]
sponsor limitations going in. Were there any surprises?
RK: No surprises, but some highs and lows throughout the journey for us
for sure. A new business paradigm for the Olympic Marathon Trials is an
absolute necessity if this event is going to find a successful,
We knew going in that securing new corporate partners would be a
challenge as a result of a business model that is less than friendly to
local organizing committees. The complex set of rules and organizations
who have intertwined corporate relationships does not allow for much
opportunity in the area of sponsor sales. But we made it work as best we
could. From day one, we made it a priority to show NBC, the USOPC and
USATF that we understood and respected their rights and agreements. We
gave them transparency into and a voice on how we would approach Olympic
and non-Olympic partners alike. As a result, we built confidence in each
other over a two-year period. I personally walked away with a greater
respect for the challenges that NBC, the USOPC and the Events Department
at USATF face in the Olympic arena.
The sponsors who decided to engage were critical to the success of the
weekend. Specifically, local and industry partners answered our call for
support. Olympic sponsors, not so much. Coca Cola, Publix, RRCA, Haku
Sports, Northside Hospital, Michelob Ultra, PNC Bank and Mizuno made the
weekend possible. For the brands that are not USATF or USOPC partners,
we found creative ways for them to activate throughout the weekend that
did not ambush or violate USOPC sponsorship and licensing rules. And
while Nike is not a Track Club partner [Editor's note: Nike is a USATF
sponsor], they did an excellent job of supporting our volunteers with
high quality, weather appropriate apparel.
I would add that most of the major footwear and apparel companies had a
strong presence in Atlanta on America's Marathon Weekend. Without
exception, everyone stayed in the their lane and respected each other's
agreements and assets with almost no ambushing. The large number of
brands promoting their athletes and initiatives in a responsible way on
race weekend added to the overall visibility and vibe of the weekend.
RRM: What are you feelings on tightening the qualifying standards in
order to reduce the number (and expense) of the entrants? What about
allowing half marathon qualifiers?
RK: I know some people believe that less is more. But I believe the more
opportunities athletes have to compete in world-class championship style
competition, the more athletes we'll have develop into true Olympic
level contenders. I don't agree with the statisticians that tell you
otherwise—their numbers are driven by past practices and an interest in
keeping elite athlete support to a minimum. With that being said, we are
in the golden age of American marathoning. There is more quality and
more depth than ever before in the marathon—especially on the women's
side. A modest tightening of the standards would seem appropriate. As
for allowing half marathon qualifiers, I am all for it. I presume Molly
Seidel would agree!
RRM: What was the bottom line for the event—in the black or in the red?
RK: Well into the red, but this was planned. From day one, Atlanta Track
Club saw this as an investment in our community—Running City USA. It
will be years before we know whether there is a financial return on this
investment, but we feel very good about it right now. We inspired a city
and re-ignited, literally and figuratively, the Olympic flame that
served this city well in 1996.
RRM: Any idea yet about the economic impact to the city? Did you have
more entrants in the Publix events on Sunday this year and do you think
that was because of the trials? Did the Publix races help subsidize the
RK: We have not commissioned an official economic impact study. But we
know we exceeded most of our projections including hotel room nights in
downtown Atlanta. And our goal for course support was 100,000
spectators. Estimates from Atlanta Police Department were that we
exceeded 200,000 spectators.
We saw 40% year-over-year growth in registration across our Publix
Atlanta Marathon events. This exceeded our expectations. In fact, we
sold out of slots in the marathon and half marathon distance. The added
revenue was used to offset some of the Trials related expenses.
RRM: Do you think the ATC will be interested in bidding on the trials in
RK: With the integration of the Trials into a larger inclusive running
weekend with the Publix, this year's Trials were an unqualified success
for the City of Atlanta, Atlanta Track Club and this running community.
But we won't be bidding on future Trials unless there is a significant
change in the bid requirements. With due respect to our friends at USATF,
it is my belief that they need to put more skin in the game and not rely
exclusively on the LOC [Local Organizing Committee] and NBC to carry
100% of the expenses for the event. I believe there is a better model to
be built that will incentivize excellence for all involved.
RRM: Will the ATC be interested in bidding on the trials in the future
assuming that World Athletics does not grant a Gold Label status waiver?
It was interesting that the lack of a gold label would not have had an
impact on this year's team selections—the same folks would have been on
the team. Obviously, a hot day could scramble that certainty.
RK: I am not sure it is accurate to say the Gold Label status
being irrelevant. Yes, the top three ended up under the automatic
qualifying time[s], but taking the chase for times out of the equation
allowed the athletes, spectators, media and broadcast audience to focus
on a good ole fashion race. This was, plain and simple, a great thing
for every person involved. I applaud all those who helped get it done,
have a new appreciation for those in the sport who actually care about
the athletes and will not soon forget those who stonewalled.
While I recognize this is a complex issue for the IAAF and USATF, I hope
the Gold Label status for the Trials remains 4 years from now. That
lobbying work needs to begin now. The position of some of our sport's
leaders that the athletes will just need to run faster if they want the
chance to represent the USA at the Games is just ridiculous. Anyone who
says that doesn't understand athlete development or the challenges of a
developing athlete getting a position on the start line in races that
provide conditions to run that fast.
RRM: Any other comments?
RK: At a time when sport specific media coverage is hard to come by, we
were pleased to welcome so many credentialed media to Atlanta for
America's Marathon Weekend as they delivered strong and visible
reporting of the Trials. This speaks to the staying power of the Rings.
Phil Stewart is the Editor and Publisher of Road Race Management
and the Director of the Credit Union Cherry Blossom Ten Mile Run and 5K