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March 20, 2018

Assessing Orlando As The 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials Host

As part of our series evaluating the cities competing to host the 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, we’ve taken a look at two of the contenders thus far — Chattanooga and Austin. This week, we’re assessing Orlando’s bid, and we’ll wrap up the series next week with Atlanta. USATF is expected to announce the winning bid in early April.

The airport code for Orlando’s airport is for some reason, not OIA, but instead MCO. That has led to some to refer to the city best known for being the home to Walt Disney World as “Mickey’s Corporate Office.” Some others who choose not to call the city by its proper name use an even less flattering monicker, “Or-bland-o.” So it seems like it may be a city with a perception problem.

And I’m not denying that Orlando and Disney are decidedly uncool. But while it may be fighting an uphill battle in the “cool” department, unbeknownst to many serious runners Orlando has large-scale event (both running and otherwise) management infrastructure unmatched among the bidding cities (and almost among all cities), and that alone is reason enough to believe that its bid is to be taken seriously and that, if Mickey can work a little magic, Orlando may be a dark horse candidate to land the Marathon Trials.

City

As we’ve said, Orlando is known for just one thing (I’ll maybe grant you a second for certain children of the ‘90s). But sometimes, being known for one thing — especially if that thing is as big a tourist attraction as “The Most Magical Place on Earth” — can do something for you. And what it has done for Orlando is make it a major player in the convention and travel business, with the most hotel rooms of any U.S. city outside of Las Vegas, the 13th-busiest airport in America, the second-largest convention center (behind Chicago Marathon Expo venue McCormick Place), and frequent rankings as the number one meeting destination in the United States. And yes, the Marathon Trials are the selection event for the U.S. Olympic Team in the marathon first and foremost, but they’re also an Event with a capital “E” with pre-race media sessions, athlete and sponsor hospitality, and VIP perks for USATF officials and volunteers. With its Disney-centric hotel and convention infrastructure, Orlando provides an unmatched ability among Trials bidders to knock that aspect of the event out of the (ball, not theme) park.

There has been a relative lack of focus on the Orlando Trials bid compared to the other bidding cities, though. I’m just spitballing (and probably offending Orlandans) here, but there may not be the same excitement and sense of civic pride in putting their best foot forward for the Trials in Orlando as there seems to be in Chattanooga, Austin, and Atlanta. Bidding for the Trials seems like both business as usual for this big-time convention host but also a little foreign to a city best-known for attracting people from the world over to show them not their vibrant culture or downtown but rather plastic castles and adults in life-sized animal costumes at a resort on the outskirts. The Trials (and major running events in general) require a vibrant local culture — and buy-in from the civic organizations who create it — to put on an event on a grand, awe-inducing scale. Whether, outside of Disney, Orlando even has culture, let alone the community buy-in needed to show that culture off to the world, I’m not sure.

Course

In case you’re wondering, there is no way that the Orlando Trials bid is planning a race to be held in Disney World. The 20,000-runner Walt Disney World Marathon, which brings in millions of dollars of revenue for Run Disney, a division of the parent company that owns the parks, has to start at 5:30am so that they can re-open the parks as early as possible once runners have cleared the route. There’s no way they’re closing even a portion of the park on mid-morning on a winter weekend in order to host a non-revenue generating event. Beyond that, as a USOC event the Trials are broadcast on NBC, a Comcast subsidiary, with Comcast being Disney’s primary media conglomerate rival. Disney isn’t looking to do them — or this event — any favors.

And even if the bid did include a Disney World course — which, again, it doesn’t — while that would certainly make for some stunning visuals, wouldn’t it also seem weird and maybe even kind of creepy? I can’t put my finger on exactly why, but something about it would feel uncanny.

Where would the course be then? Well, it’s nowhere near as exciting as Disney (although it is less creepy — so hooray, I guess?), but if there is a downtown Orlando icon, it’s the fountain in Lake Eola Park, which several established Orlando races of various distances currently start and finish next to. A variation on one of those routes’ themes could surely be drawn up to form a flat and fast criterium course out of the nearly pancake-flat areas surrounding Orlando’s downtown. Nothing exciting to see here, but nothing disqualifying either.

Weather

The date of the Trials, if it were to be held in Orlando, is up in the air. It most likely would not be held in conjunction with the Walt Disney World Marathon which is held in early-to-mid January every year. In order to avoid punishing heat, though, it couldn’t be held too much later. Let’s operate on the assumption that it would be held in late January.

On January 31 in Orlando, the average historical low is 54 degrees while the average high is 70. On January 31, 2018, the low temperature was 46 degrees and the high was 68. Record extremes in Orlando on January 31 are 41 degrees (2009) and 84 degrees (2002). The average relative humidity in Orlando in January at approximately 7am is 87 (although it drops quickly to 73 by 10am and 56 by 1pm), and the city receives an average of 2.4 inches of rain every January with an average of seven days in the month with precipitation. Average instantaneous wind speeds in Orlando in January (calculated 10 meters above the ground) are between 8 and 11 mph, with winds between 9am and 4pm (the time window during which the Trials will almost surely be run) in the 10-11 mph range. In summary, the typical conditions in Orlando are good, but there is a substantial risk of moderate winds and, depending on how late in the day the Trials are held, a chance of warmer-than-ideal temperatures. As noted in the Austin assessment, though, warm temperatures (although not extreme heat) may not be viewed as a negative by USATF when selecting the team for what will likely be a warm weather marathon in Tokyo.

LOC Strength

Unbeknownst to many serious runners, Orlando is the home base of one of the oldest and most-respected race production shops in the country: Track Shack. Track Shack co-founder Jon Hughes was the founding race director of the Walt Disney World Marathon, and say what you will about that race being more spectacle than sporting event, growing an event to that size (the seventh-largest marathon in America in recent years) and continuing to smoothly and successfully manage it is no mean feat, regardless of how many costumes are worn. (Also, there’s a place in running for everyone, whether their goal is to OTQ or to finish — or to finish multiple races in a weekend and earn a bunch of medals — and kudos for Hughes and Disney for recognizing the market for this kind of spectacle and launching this race in 1994, long before the rest of the industry caught on.)

The race being what it is, the competitive level at the Walt Disney World Marathon isn’t high, and so Track Shack may have limited experience with the technical aspect of supporting a large elite field (and the Orlando running community isn’t famous for having the pointiest of pointy ends at the front of its local races, either). On the timing side, though, TrackShack is superb — so much so that they were tapped to be the timer of the 2016 Trials in Los Angeles. And for all the issues that event had, take a second to look at the results — those excel split files are a thing of beauty. (Also, check out the last finisher in the Men’s Trials results and take a second to ponder where the “world’s fastest stoner” Chris Barnicle might be right now. Last we heard, he was thinking of attempting a sub-four in the mile during the indoor season.)

Like High Five in Austin, Track Shack is a for-profit venture, so USATF might have some apprehensions about them spearheading a bid. But also like High Five owner Jack Murray in Austin, Track Shack’s Hughes plays a role with his local sports commission. That, coupled with the working relationship that USATF must have developed with Visit Orlando and the Central Florida Sports Commission when they hosted the USATF conference in Orlando in 2016, may somewhat assuage USATF’s fears there. If these relationships lead to some additional funding, this stumbling block could be overcome.

X-Factors

Although USATF may have concerns about Track Shack spearheading this bid, Hughes himself, even without additional funding, may somewhat mitigate USATF’s concerns. As an industry lifer (and legend) who considered even timing the 2016 Trials to be “better than a victory lap,” his interest in hosting the Trials is more about leaving a legacy than it is a business decision. As such, the expectation is that he will spare no expense and leave no stone unturned to put on the best Trials possible. That being said, some additional funding will definitely be necessary unless he wants to bankrupt himself — or unless timing and producing races is more lucrative than any of us know…

An interesting thing to consider in bringing the Trials to Orlando, too, would be that it would likely be a stand-alone event, as opposed to an event added to race weekend the day before a major mass-participation marathon. On the one hand, that may allow more dedicated resources to be focused on the Trials to produce a truly spectacular experience for participants, spectators, and television viewers alike, rather than resources being split between the Trials and the mass participation race. On the other hand, when the Trials has been attached to a major marathon (as it has since 2008), the host city became the center of the U.S. running universe that weekend, and an extra-bright media spotlight shined on the Trials because of it. This bid would likely be missing out on that sort of double-dip. Although whether any of the other mass participation marathons bidding for the 2020 Trials, which are more mid-major than the World Marathon Majors, would attract the same attention as New York, Boston, Houston, and Los Angeles did at recent Trials also remains to be seen.

Assessment

3 Olympic rings (of 5 possible, obviously)

There are substantial questions that need to be answered in Orlando’s bid: whether the funding is in place, whether the community support and buy-in is there, if there is a course or venue anywhere in Orlando that will have enough (or any) “wow” factor — all of these questions need to have the right answers for this bid to be considered. And even if they are answered, whether USATF decision-makers would want to go back to Florida, while likely not a deal-breaker, is another hill for this bid to climb.

All of this being said, Hughes’s experience, technical expertise, and reputation lend credibility to this bid, which means that USATF will at least listen to Orlando’s answers to these questions before casting its bid aside. And if all the answers are there, and if none of the other bids seem 100% solid, that means there’s a chance that USATF staff and volunteers will have to brave the gators and concealed-carry one more time and head back to Florida to pick the 2020 U.S. Marathon Team.


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