The USATF Foundation is a tide lifting a harbor's worth of boats

The impact a single megadonor can have on a poorly funded sport is astonishing, and deserves more recognition. But the "littler people" are doing the real work

In addition to enjoying my own watered-down hour or so of daily “training” in defiance of my oppressed-minority status—I’m one of about nine locals informed enough to appreciate, or at least brave enough to abide by, the fact that wearing a mask while running outdoors prevents COVID-19 transmission to exactly the same extent as prayers, Gypsy curses, or wizard-spells do—I get frequent, often incidental tips about underreported positive things happening in professional American distance running.

One of these is the efforts of the USATF Foundation, which assists current professional track and field athletes with funding as well as with transitioning to careers outside the sport via guided one-on-one mentorship. (While essentially every NBA, NFL or Major League Baseball star not named Curt Schilling retires with enough to live comfortably on into senescence, this is true of very few U.S. track and field athletes, especially distance runners.)

Have a look at the organization’s programs—if you’re the sort who likes to become involved in one-the-ground support efforts that are funneled directly to those who need them, you can easily get lost on this page.

I could focus at length at any one of these programs and the people involved, and normally I’d prefer to. But this room has a diamond-studded elephant standing in the middle of it. One of the foundation’s board members is Stephen A. Schwarzman, who has given, by workaday standards, an obscene amount of money to the sport—$4 million over the seven years ending in October 2020.

On July 1, in response to the upending of everything normal by a pandemic, the foundation announced that Schwarzman had given it $875,000 to support 100 elite athletes, 25 in the amount of $20,000 and 75 more to the tune of $5,000. The next day, it revealed that Schwarzman had pitched in $5,000 apiece to 39 more athletes. If 39 and $195,000 seem like weird numbers, there’s an explanation at the bottom of the list of names: “Note: Gwen Berry (Hammer Throw) was awarded a 2020 Elite Athlete Grant in the amount of $5,000, but requested to be taken off the grant award list.” Finally, in October, Schwarzman pledged to fork over $8 million more to 65 athletes—$30,000 a year for four years—over the next Olympic Games cycle. (Also on the board is someone I trust a great deal with all aspects of the sport.)

I searched for coverage of these grants within the running community—that I’d not heard about them myself implies nothing of value—and, apart from pages supplied by the foundation and USA Track and Field itself, Letsrun.com, and Track & Field News, I came up practically empty.

I did discover a story in which Berry claims she was never chosen for an award at all, stating that the alleged snub was the result of her protesting racial injustice at the awards ceremony after winning gold at the 2019 Pan American Games. (Aside: I hope this isn’t true, because in spite of the awards-ceremony rules, which also include playing often banal songs, I say protest away. The people getting wealthy off these athletes can surely tolerate a little emotion on the podium. Besides, what would you do in her scenario? Do you know? A lot of us have decided that we would handle the issues most urgent in our minds and hearts with perfect grace and restraint, even in the wake of being supercharged by a victory at a major championship. A lot of people have seemingly become experts, in fact, at inhabiting the minds of world-class athletes and ascertaining how they would think and therefore act in every public situation.)

Anyway, that Schwarzman received no love whatsoever from the U.S. running media—and every time I use that term, I feel like I’m humoring a small child by calling his pile of pillows at the foot of the stairs “that fortress”—may not have been simply a function of his philanthropy being swamped by more front-and-center track-and-field matters. If you’ve heard of Schwarzman, it’s likely because he is a bigly-ass Republican operative and foremost Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell and Susan Collins supporter. In fact, about a month after his combined $1,270,000 gift to the USATF Foundation, he donated $10 million to a super-PAC associated with McConnell. And if he was feeling generous last summer, it may have been because he was watching his personal wealth bloat from $12.4 billion to $19 billion between August 2018 and October 2020. Forgive my rounding errors, but during that 26-month period, when a lot of poorer people weren’t doing nearly as well, Schwarzman’s financial accounts were appreciating by about eight and a half million dollars per day. Each one of those $5,000 gifts reappeared somewhere in his possession in under a minute.

It is almost impossible to put into comprehensible terms how trivial an offloading of money, in relative terms, this is. If you make $60 an hour, or around $125,000 a year, picture yourself giving away two and a half hours of a day’s salary to a given charity. You’ve probably given a lot more than that to less deserving people, and having far more to lose in the bargain.

But tossing all of the facile rich-dude piling-on, we* are still left with an incredibly beneficial series of donations. Even $5,000 can probably pay six months’ rent for most of these athletes. $30,000, hell, even $20,000 is practically astronomical in the world of a barely post-collegiate athlete on the rise who is working a part-time gig-style job. And the athletes clearly appreciated the help, expressing their thanks on the usual triad of platforms as well as by e-mail.

Considering that the people passing themselves off as journalists haunt elite athletes around the clock on Twitter et al., it seems odd that none apparently took notice of the groundswell of gratitude. At this point I’m inclined as usual in these analytical settings to cite ignorance rather than malice as the reason for the near-absence of external coverage, but a lot of obvious factors are pushing me strongly toward alternative, cynical, and probably more realistic conclusions.

Either way, it shouldn’t matter how comparatively paltry anyone’s gift seems in proportion to their means or what else that donor does with his time and money. Imagine what could happen if Schwarzman got drunk with ten of his profanely rich pals and dared all of them to donate $10 million apiece and render his own philanthropy, in that universe, an inconsequential burst of fiduciary flatulence. Just picture what the relatively small pool of Americans with a real shot at a global championship could collectively do with the cash, even if it reeked of a District of Columbia McDonald’s take-out bag. But also account for what a bunch of fellows like this—and all would be fellows, unambiguously so—most likely think of the Wokish ridiculousness now subsuming as much of the sport as the haters and liars can manage, and how this might affect even their alcohol-enhanced disposition toward magnanimity.

The USATF Foundation responds to the real, individual concerns of today’s athletes. Its end-of-2020 recap booklet leads with an intention to expand its athlete career development program, in large part “sparked by the desire to provide a lift to athletes of color.” The authors add, “The #BlackLivesMatter movement is inspiring individuals and corporations to invest in young black adults (50% of our athlete community).”

I’ll be keeping a close eye on the new partnership proposal, called #MyNextSuccess. What runners do during their careers is often easy enough to absorb and appreciate, but it’s nice to think of a new cohort of 35- to 40-year-olds successfully making their way into the professional world each year, be their vocational paths related to their careers as athletes or not.

It is fortunate that my everyday orientation to running in all its facets bears little relationship to the contentious topics I typically write about here. Although I consider my observations about grating and incompetent editors and writers, cheating laggards, passive-aggressive newsletter generators, and anti-women’s-sport racists promoted as benevolent activists to be factually unimpeachable, my output, by most assessments, is at least as choleric on its face as any of the bleating from the luminaries of the Wokish joggersphere. If I didn’t find myself unwaveringly anchored to the sport through a number of private, mutually galvanizing enterprises in which I’m lucky to be involved, I don’t think I’d bother trying to be persuasive about this stuff at all; I’d just unload half-formed, purely caustic ideas aimed primarily at making a few humorless and fragile targets feel even worse about themselves, and giggle at how easy it is to be a bully, like the Wokish do when relying on butthurt-soaked, fact-free tweetstorms and other harpy-tactics to establish nominal rhetorical primacy.

I also have to add that my willingness to be harsh is being challenged lately by being back in touch with someone I hadn’t heard from in years. Without going into it, we have a complicated history, and we’ve been diving deep into some of the classic rock songs we both seem to favor—me largely because of his long-ago influence. He’s a real musician and I replicate noises on keys. I sometimes have overwhelming moments where my overarching motivation for wanting to excel at particular endeavors so plainly comes from, and it’s humbling and very enriching at once.

Nevertheless, it’s back to the grind. I’m still off social media (it’s been, what, five hours?) but I continue to receive a lot of e-mail glop ripe for the choleric processing. Every time I try to write something nice, the madness just piles up as if assembled purely for the benefit of someone looking for intentional mistakes by a well-circumscribed set of people. Yay.