OREGON - With track and field's 2015 World Championships less than two weeks away, the U.S. team roster is set to be announced on Monday. But it appears six-time U.S. 800 champion Nick Symmonds has been dropped from the team due to a dispute with the USATF, the sport's national governing body.
Symmonds, the 2013 silver medalist, qualified for world meet in dramatic fashion at the U.S. Championships in late June. He used his patented kick to surge to victory once again, flashing his Run Gum bicep tats as he crossed the line.
But the former Willamette standout has refused to sign the USATF's required "athlete statement of conditions," objecting to what he claims is vague language in that contract. He believes it forces athletes to wear official team apparel, which is supplied by and carries the Nike brand, not just while competing, but anytime they are in public at an event like the world championships.
Symmonds was sponsored by Nike until 2014, but is now sponsored by Brooks. He is part of the Brooks Beasts training group based in Seattle.
The controversy became public late last week, and has quickly stirred up a firestorm of reaction on social media and in the track world. A popular Twitter hashtag was "#LetNickRun."
Saturday night's FloTrack Throwdown Meet, held at Duniway Park in Portland, offered Symmonds another chance to make his case for athletes' rights. After running in the 400 meters - he finished sixth in 48.53 at a distance at which he rarely competes - Symmonds talked about his feud with USATF.
"I went on social (media) today and put it out there that I want to be on this team and I want to come to a compromise," Symmonds said. "I am willing to work with (USATF).
"I'm not for chaos. I understand the need to have a contract. But let's make sure it is a good contract . . . but no one is bothering to negotiate with me."
Symmonds said in 2014 at the World Indoor Championships in Sopot, Poland, he had been repeatedly reprimanded by USATF staffers for not wearing US (Nike) team apparel, even while having breakfast alone at the hotel or going for a cup of coffee.
He has also accused the USATF of "bullying" tactics, and says there is unfair treatment for those athletes who are sponsored by shoe and apparel companies other than Nike.
Symmonds' requests for clarification of what a "team function" is and for renegotiating this requirement have met with stiff resistance from USATF.
"We can't have a viable sport if our governing body is that incompetent . . . let me help you. But as of now I just keep getting emails from their lawyer saying, 'Sign the contract as it is or you're not going.' That's not helpful."
Symmonds is an exception in the world of track and field, where sponsorship is crucial for athletes, many of whom survive on a subsistence income. As a successful entrepreneur who runs several businesses with coach and business partner Sam Lapray, Symmonds believes the sport can do better.
"We have an amazing, beautiful sport with a loyal fan base. There are just some very big overhauls that need to happen to make this sport (better). It starts with revenue-sharing, it starts with contracts we can be proud of."
Symmonds said he has a good relationship with USATF CEO Max Siegal, and that Siegal "has been a joy to work with . . . but he doesn't have the power (to resolve this dispute)." Symmonds believes the USATF board has the power, but is unwilling to change how athletes are treated.
To those who have followed track and field over the past few decades, Symmonds' struggles are reminiscent of Steve Prefontaine's battles with the AAU, then the sport's governing body.
While Symmonds has been gratified by the support he has received from fans, other athletes and even the media, he seemed resigned that his chances of staying on the U.S. team were slim.
"I'm about to go have a beer and I'm 99% certain that I am not going to be on the team and that pisses me off because I earned that (spot).
"We're going to send three great athletes to Beijing in the 800, but I'm the only one who has a medal around his neck. I know how to get through (qualifying) rounds, I know how to win an international medal. So, you leave me home, I can't do that."
Asked how he would feel to watch the world meet from his home, Symmonds paused to reflect on that likely scenario.
"It will hurt really bad. I spent two years training for (the world championships) . . . I'm fit. I'm ready to go out and win a medal. I'm going to have to figure out what I am going to do because I am not going to sit there and watch that 800 meter final from my couch. Knowing that I can go out there and win a medal. Knowing that I am passing up on potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars in earnings . . . that stinks.
"I think something needs to change."