May 2020 Issue 430

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 event?

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 Olympic movement.

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, sustainable future.

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 OT?

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 the future?

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 ended up 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 Run-Walk.

Next Article: NBC’s Marathon Trials Telecast Fails to Inspire

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