In Los Angeles, USAT gets what it needs

USA Triathlon's Skip Gilbert knows that you can't always get what you want. For executive directors of national sports federations disappointment, patience and compromise come with the territory. It's that pearl of wisdom from 60s rock that keeps governance officials hopeful: If you try sometimes you just might find you get what you need.

One way or the other USAT will get what it needs in Los Angeles. Perhaps not an inch more, though, depending on how the politics and legalities play out over the next hours and days. It is a virtual certainty that the 2008 L.A. Triathlon, one of five stops in the Lifetime Fitness Triathlon Series, will be a federation-sanctioned race. Still not known is whether the only "owner" that race has ever had, Jack Caress, will be its federation-sanctioned race director.

Sanctioning the L.A. Tri, that's a good get if you're triathlon's governing body in America, but the road to sanctioning was bloody and bruising and USAT's Gilbert has to be hoping it's never going to be this hard again.

Gilbert did not go the usual route, which is to try to get the race director to sanction his race. Instead, he went directly to the L.A. City Council and appealed to the city fathers. No executive director in the history of USA Triathlon has ever done this. Such a move might seem brash and chilling until one scratches the surface to reveal motives not immediately apparent.

Gilbert is careful in his words when recounting his lobbying visit to the L.A. City Council. He did not admonish the Council to deny permits to Caress. "Rather," said Gilbert, "I asked simply that the race be open for bid."

Gilbert is right, as far as it goes. What Gilbert did was admonish the Council to require a USAT sanction of whoever the race's producer would be. Gilbert said that the right RD, with sanction in hand, can leverage USAT's might and power and push the race upwards—way upwards—in stature and size. "A well-run LA Triathlon has the potential to draw 2-3 times the current amount of athletes and become a very important event in the sport," Gilbert wrote the Council, adding that, "One of the core benefits of the USAT seal of approval is the promotional support allowing these events to grow to its specific potential." Gilbert went on to enumerate those promotional benefits. Gilbert also informed that Council that, for reasons he listed, and that will be listed here, Jack Caress races "will not receive a USAT sanction."

Gilbert had a replacement RD at the ready. "USAT understands that Michael Epstein of MESP is very interested in bidding on the direction of this race, when the current agreement expires," Gilbert assured L.A.'s City Council. "That would be an excellent choice and we fully support his candidacy. MESP conducts the Nautica Malibu Triathlon, which just celebrated its 20th anniversary. It usually sells months before the race date with over 2,200 athletes."

Throughout its history, USA Triathlon's mission has been to get existing race directors to sanction. Never has it gone over the top of an RD to the municipal fathers holding the keys to the permits, asking them to cast out the man who built a race in favor of a replacement the federation would provide. What caused USAT to take this unusual and unprecedented step?

On the basis of letters, presentations, and all outward appearances, the motivator was a resolution passed by the ITU (triathlon's world governing body) sometime in the late 1990s disallowing any of its daughter federations from doing business with Jack Caress or his company, Pacific Sports, LLC.

In the long and crystal memory of ITU president Les McDonald, Jack Caress inhabits a special place. McDonald has fought angry, pitched battles too numerous to count, sparring with WTC president Ben Fertic, its former president Lew Friedland, and the one before that, David Yates. McDonald's former right hand man and ITU secretary general Mark Sisson fell out of favor with McDonald and was cast out for reasons that pertain to the very issue at stake here in L.A. And then there's Skip Gilbert, whom the ITU literally treats as nonexistent. The ITU does not acknowledge his calls or emails or any of his correspondence, and when the ITU office must send something to USAT, it addresses such correspondence to another person in USAT's office.

That list of McDonald enemies established—and it stretches much longer—it appears no one raises the ire of McDonald as does Jack Caress. In the ITU's history, no one has ever been personally named in an ITU resolution as persona non grata in triathlon, save Caress.

Notwithstanding Caress' decision to avoid seeking a sanction for any of his races over the past decade, he did seek a sanction for this upcoming 2008 edition of the L.A. Tri. Why? Because Gilbert's letters and personal visits to the Council meetings worked. The Council gave Caress until this 18th of May to sanction the race, otherwise the L.A. Triathlon would fall to the bidding process. Caress attempted to sanction the L.A. Tri with USAT to avoid having to bid for his own race. The sanction application was denied, on April 25th, as Gilbert promised the Council it would be.

Why does the ITU's hatred for Caress rise to a level requiring such anger to be institutionalized via a resolution? Gilbert spoke to this subject in front of the L.A. City Council, recounting a conflict between the ITU and a Pacific Sports Corporation, Inc., (PSC) of which Caress was a principal owner. Caress produced the ITU World Championships in Cleveland in 1996. The ITU claims it was owed money by Caress, and took its case to the Court for Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Lausanne, Switzerland. CAS ruled against Caress and for the ITU.

About that dispute: Caress claims that the ITU sought millions in damages, but that the CAS ruling handed down against PSC was a fraction of that. Caress states, and Gilbert has stipulated, that the CAS ruling was against PSC, Inc., not Caress personally. Caress contends that he did not pursue a counterclaim because he held such action in abeyance so long as the ITU never attempt to collect on the CAS award, which Caress says it never has.

When Gilbert apprised the Council of the dispute between Caress and the ITU, and the CAS ruling, and the judgment, he informed the Council that, "to avoid further litigation, [Caress] dissolved his company after the trial and launched a new one shortly thereafter."

Gilbert informed the Council of two debts that he said Caress owed a pair of federations: More than $100,000 to the ITU comprised of the pro prize money and well as other unitemized money owed to the ITU for the Cleveland Worlds race; and in excess of $25,000 Caress, "currently owes USAT... which we also never expect to see. For these reasons and others, his races will not receive a USAT sanction."

Gilbert has since backtracked on some of his points, acknowledging that Caress had, in fact, paid the prize money from the Cleveland Worlds, leaving $77,000 of the CAS settlement still unpaid. Gilbert also acknowledged that Pacific Sports, LLC, was a legal entity prior to the Cleveland Worlds, but stood by his point that Caress, "has succeeded in frustrating collection of the amount awarded in arbitration."

Regarding that $25,000 debt owed USAT, Gilbert told the Council, "Unfortunately, our records from the late 1990's are all maintained off-site, and I do not have the ability to provide documentation of that debts at this time. Thus, for purposes of these communications, I retract the statement."

While the person of Jack Caress is troubling to USAT and Gilbert, the theme of Gilbert's argument was personality-independent. Speaking to the Council, Gilbert's two-track argument focused on the ITU resolution that USAT could not ignore; while offering a remedy for what he saw as an underperforming L.A. triathlon that "is the smallest city-based triathlon, far exceeded in participant size by Chicago, New York, and many others."

"Currently it draws significantly less than 2,000 athletes and has actually decreased in attendance, while New York and Chicago have exploded in popularity. Even smaller communities like Austin, Texas draw over 2,500 for their race."

In a follow-up letter to the Council, dated April 12, 2008, Gilbert refined his total: "The reported 1327 finishers (as reported from the online results page from the 2006 LA Triathlon) of the Olympic distance event ... made it much smaller in participant size than many other city-based triathlons."

Gilbert used a bit of creative calculus when arriving at the number 1327. In point of fact, the race registered north of 2500 athletes this past year, in accordance with its historic norms. This assumes that you count both the sprint and the Olympic race, and why would you not?

Still, Gilbert is right when comparing the L.A. race to certain other big city triathlons. The L.A. Tri is roughly one-third the size of the Accenture Chicago Triathlon in number of athlete registrants, and lags behind the New York City Tri as well. The Philadelphia Insurance Triathlon registers over 3000 for its Olympic and Sprint. The Nation's Tri in Washington D.C. enters its third year, and today announced the filling of its field at 3500 registrants.

But there are structural problems specific to the L.A. race that do not necessarily constrain other citified events. Its course is point-to-point, requiring two transition areas, and the race must take place entirely inside the L.A. city limits, traveling a route the Council says ought to avail contestants of particular city landmarks. This makes the race exceptionally expensive to produce, and requires contestants to make several trips to locations 20 miles apart, in downtown L.A. traffic.

Accenture's own race director, Jan Caille, points to these difficulties when he recounts leafing through the city's request for proposal pursuant to the first-ever L.A. Triathlon. "No flipping way," was Caille's response. "There is no pot-of-gold here. L.A. is not a prize." Caille declined to bid on the race and, in fact, there is no evidence of a bidder for that first race other than Caress. Nobody was—take your pick—foolish enough or brazen enough to want this race in the beginning. Now that the race is established, there are several suitors in the wings.

The producer of another downtown race, San Diego's Rick Kozlowski, questions the growth available in L.A. "The L.A. County lifeguards are very strict about how many people can be in the water at a time. But Jack has a very tight window in L.A. How long can you keep those roads closed? I think the lifeguard requirements limit the size of that race, and I think it's pretty close to maxed out."

For every downtown race that is a success, there are several big cities that don't have downtown events, or have produced failed races, or are hosting races that have yet to prove out. It's illustrative to consider the Monster Challenge in Boston. That race ran from 2001 to 2005, failing to crack 1000 athletes each year. Was it the fault of the race director? Dave McGillivray is a seven-time Hawaiian Ironman finisher who built New England's dominant tri series. He's produced a Goodwill Games Triathlon and a World Championship Triathlon. He's the race director of his city's other downtown race: the Boston Marathon. And, he's a USAT sanctioner.

The Miami International fields well below a thousand. Likewise the Toyota U.S. Open in Dallas. The San Diego International Triathlon registers about 1500 athletes, and fills. For most of this race's 25-year existence it didn't fill, but persistence pays, and now it closes out months early.

Denver has no downtown race. Nor does Houston, nor Atlanta. In fact, downtown races are a rarity, because they're so cost intensive to produce.

Nevertheless, when advising the City Council Gilbert sounded convinced L.A. had significant growth available to it, should the race's management avail itself of the tools in USAT's toolbox. The L.A.Tri might grow were it to be a regional championship, according to Gilbert, who also suggested the possibility of adding it to the Continental Cup Pro Series; perhaps a Junior Olympic Development race; inclusion into the USAT ranking system; the ability to apply for national championship designation; access to trained officials; and access to the USAT mailing list.

What among these tools would grow the L.A. Tri? The Monster Challenge was part of the Continental Cup tour. Gilbert pointed out, probably correctly to the Council, that the L.A. Tri would not rank in size among the federation's top-10 events. On the flip side, the L.A. Tri outstrips in entries most or all Continental Cup and Junior Development races worldwide. Also, it is larger than all of the federation's regional championships save St. Anthony's Triathlon.

In other words, yes, perhaps a popular and successful RD like Michael Epstein might build the L.A. Tri into a mega-race on a par with Chicago or New York, but if so there is no strong evidence that federation sanctioning by itself boosts race attendance. There is evidence that good race directors boost race attendance. Most of them are sanctioners, that is true. But none would label the sanction as the engine that boosts the size of their races.

Indeed, some RDs who don't sanction choose this path without any adverse opinion of the federation. "I don't sanction because of the work, and the paperwork, and the burden on my staff and on my athletes," said San Diego International's Kozlowski. "I have nothing against the federation. I support it. If the federation were to ask me for an annual donation, I would gladly give it. But a high percentage of my athletes are first-timers, and I can't give them any good reason why they have to walk to the next table and pay ten dollars more."

Veteran RD Greg Klein echoes these statements. "Remember, I produced the first ever ITU Duathlon World Championship. I have no problem with the federation." But Klein also sees this as a structural problem, not a philosophical one. "I've got a lot of first-timers," explaining why he can't justify asking them to pay the extra one-day charge.

Those who do sanction point to the ease of sanctioning, and for USAT's 100,000-strong phalanx of annual members a sanctioned race means free insurance for them. Obviously, the great majority of RDs across the U.S. see sanctioning as a good thing, since more than 90 percent of this country's triathlons are sanctioned. sanctions its camps and workshops with the federation. It is easy, and the federation's insurance policy does perform. "We had a person die at one of our races," remembers Klein. "At that time, we did sanction. The federation's insurance carrier defended us, and the case was thrown out of court."

Gilbert brought all this up to the Council. Federation sanctioning will make your race bigger. It'll make your race safer. It'll protect the City more comprehensively. And it'll make your race more fair for the competitors. Gilbert's correspondence explained that sanctioned races have, "access to trained, professional USA Triathlon officials. All USA Triathlon officials are trained to ensure that your event is safe and fair for your participants."

Gilbert is right about that. Officiating is one of the best programs USAT has. At the same time, it is not mandatory for races to "buy" these officials and in fact the Malibu Triathlon has a spotty reputation for marshalling at its very large race. One contestant put it this way: "That race is chaos." As for marshals, "I certainly don't recall seeing any… I don't think marshals are high on the priority list." Another regular competitor said, "I've done Malibu several times but quit when the field size went from crowded to scary. Never saw a marshal at that race." But another Malibu contestant refuted that, saying, "Yes [they have marshals], and they gave me a penalty the last time I did the race."

It must be noted that the Malibu Triathlon is different event than the L.A. race, sort of like Bay to Breakers is to the San Francisco Marathon. Michael Epstein, were he to become the L.A.'s event director, may place a higher priority on limiting course density, and he may increase the ratio of marshals to contestants. The fact remains that the current L.A. Tri is not sanctioned, and the Malibu Tri is, yet there does not seem an appreciable difference in the quality of marshaling as judged by the competitors.

Jack Caress is not the Dalai Lama, nor is he Billy Graham. Who is Jack Caress? "Jack is Jack," according to one who knows him well, in a manner that connotes universal understanding. "As much as Jack has pissed off everybody on the planet," said another longtime Caress event vendor, "He's a survivor. He amazes me. He manages to keep growing his company."

"I just don't like the way Jack treats people," said yet another vendor to Caress. This vendor refused to lend his name to his comments, as did the two above, because they all admit they may yet again work for Caress. In fact, this vendor admits, "He's never been bad to me."

Caress can be a hard man to work for. Sometimes more than hard. A well-respected company timing the L.A. Triathlon earlier this decade, AA Sports, sued Caress to receive payment for its services. AA Sports won a judgment in full, according to co-owner Carol Atherton, and had to garnish a future Caress race in order to finally get its money.

Caress says AA Sports was the, "Second worst timing firm I have ever dealt with. I told them they did not deserve full payment and our attorneys gave a very detailed legal document describing why and how they did not live up to their contract."

This dim view of AA Sports—the predominant race promoter in the Pacific Northwest (and another non-sanctioner)—is not widely held. Rather, AA Sports' Jon Atherton says it's Caress' modus operandi: "Jack has underpaid or not paid dozens of workers and vendors. His business model, as our lawyer said at the trial, was to not pay, wait them out, then pay 50 cents on the dollar."

Caress has also had his problems with his charities. According to an official at the office of Special Olympics of Southern California, that charity is owed $25,000 and will no longer allow the organization to be the associated with the race. Caress says, "We had a very amicable parting with SOSC. We have donated in excess of $100k to them," and that this official, "Simply has it wrong."

Caress has also fallen afoul of the local chapter of the Leukemia Team in Training organization. Of this relationship, Caress says, "Our agreement was very specific on what each side was to do. They failed miserably on volunteer recruitment. We—and they—were forced to hire contractors and virtually anyone we could find in the late stages before the event to filled the mandatory spots required by the City. It was very unfortunate since the LA Chapter damaged a great national relationship I and we had."

The discontent with Jack Caress in the Los Angeles triathlon community seemed an octave above the typical white noise of whiners that attend every city and every community. Was there something more here than an ITU resolution that brought Gilbert to Los Angeles? Did an organic, locally-grown, swell of anger reach out to Gilbert, in the hope that USAT would be the lever to pry Caress out and allow Epstein in?

There was at least one L.A. City staff meeting prior to any letters from USAT to the City Council attended by, according to one in the room, a prominent L.A. Triathlon Club member, with USAT Board member Jeff Matlow sitting in as an observer. This recollection is echoed by USAT President Rob Kasper, who added, "All the information I've seen suggests that we were acting at the request of people in the L.A. Tri club and folks in the L.A. Community."

"It was because the local L.A. tri community reached out to us that we took a serious interest in what was going on," said Gilbert. "But, I would not have come to L.A., and we as a federation would not have intervened, were it not for the ITU resolution. We would have judged this a local squabble. Without the resolution we would have had no firm standing to intervene."

Gilbert was asked if it would be correct to assume that he would not have intervened in L.A. were it not for the ITU resolution, nor would he have gone to L.A. were there only the resolution.

"You're absolutely correct. It seemed everybody in L.A. had a story; everybody had a deal gone bad. At the same time, it's very difficult to support a race series [The Lifetime Fitness Series] if twenty-five percent of the ownership of the series is persona non grata by the international federation. So, yes, were it not for both the resolution and the disaffection in L.A., we could not have intervened."

So, Gilbert made the federation's case to the L.A. City Council using, in part, the governance argument he had. But, that argument had its flaws.

For example, USAT sanctioned the U.S. Open Triathlon in Dallas last year, of which Caress is part owner. Caress contends that Gilbert knew then that Caress was an owner. So, USAT had already defied the ITU resolution.

Second, the CAS judgment was not against Caress, and USAT therefore had flimsy grounds to deny Caress a sanction according to USAT's own bylaws and charter.

Third, there was the ITU's attempt several years ago to get USAT to deny Lifetime Fitness Triathlon (the flagship race in the upper Midwest, and a part of the Lifetime Fitness Series, of which the L.A. Tri is a part) a sanction. USAT, through its lawyers, defied the ITU, stating that it could not follow the ITU's demands if it meant breaking U.S. law. (Mark Sisson—the ITU secretary general McDonald cast off—made appeals to Mcdonald in favor of USAT's right to sanction Lifetime Fitness, and according to Sisson it was that disloyalty that pushed him out of the ITU). Gilbert apprised the other members of the Lifetime Triathlon Series that Caress-a part owner of both the Series as well as another of the Series' races-must be divested of all his ownership in any of the Series events. This did not sit well with Bahram Akradi, owner of Lifetime Fitness and the former target of McDonald's attacks, according to one of USAT's board members. "They told us, 'Settle this among yourselves, don't bring us into it.'"

But that's precisely what Gilbert and USAT were doing, causing USAT's Board members to recall the fight with another of its large and well-funded partners, WTC (owners of the Ironman Triathlon). The federation lost that fight almost entirely, having to give in to virtually all of WTC's demands.

In other words, the federation had learned a lesson: When push comes to shove, you stand by your large, well-heeled, U.S.-based customer, not your offshore-domiciled world governing body.

There is one more problem: Nobody at the ITU can—ahem—lay their hands on any actual resolution that was passed forbidding USAT to sanction a Jack Caress or Pacific Sports, LLC, race. It's not in any of the minutes. There is no actual evidence that such a resolution exists.

The ITU counters this by contending, according to Gilbert, that it was an executive committee resolution, and because minutes are not taken during executive session the resolution is not recorded.

"That's the thing about Les [McDonald]," reminisced Sisson of his years of service as an ITU executive officer. "He's such a stickler for Robert's Rules of Order. Until they work against him."

Yesterday USAT's attorneys sent a letter to the ITU, and the precise contents of that letter are unknown to Slowtwitch. The letter will require the signature of the ITU's president, and this would signify that the resolution banning Caress does in fact exist and is in force. What is not known to Slowtwitch is whether USAT is also asking the ITU to defend and hold harmless USAT should it deny Caress a sanction and Caress pursue legal action against the federation.

Caress has also asked for, and will receive, a hearing pursuant to USAT's bylaws, such hearing to take place next week.

In the end, it might work out elegantly for USAT. It's getting a hard-won sanction. The L.A. multisport community may have gotten what it needed as well. There is no absolute guarantee, even if he gets his sanction, that Caress will keep this race from going to bid. If he does keep this race, Caress will no-doubt put his best foot forward to prove he's the right RD for this city, and for the race he built from the ground up. USAT, after showing the Council the size of its biceps, must now prove that sanctioning makes races fairer, safer, and bigger.

What if the ITU does not sign USAT's letter; does not produce proof of a resolution barring Caress from federation racing? What if USAT gets cold feet and decides that sanctioning Caress is, after all, the better part of valor? In this case, the local L.A. contingent of disaffected triathletes who seek a change in the L.A. Triathlon management may have to do their own heaving lifting.

The most apparent and lasting legacy, years from now, is that the L.A. Triathlon is USAT-sanctioned. Will Gilbert get what he wanted: a change of RD in L.A.? We don't know yet. At a minimum, he probably got what he needed.