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March 28, 2018

Assessing Atlanta 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 three of the contenders thus far — Chattanooga, Austin, and Orlando – This week, we’re wrapping up the series next week with Atlanta. USATF is expected to announce the winning bid in early April.

We now come to the last of our bidding cities — Atlanta, the last U.S. city to play host the Summer (aka real) Olympics, a fact on which the bid is leaning heavily. And although it is last on our list of assessments, “Hotlanta” is first in our hearts as the strongest bid among the four contending cities. That’s not to say that, like all of the bidders, it doesn’t have its own challenges to overcome, but from the moment the cities were announced, this Trials has been Atlanta’s to lose, and it has done nothing but solidify its position since then.

City

I’m not going to lie — of the bidding cities, Atlanta is the one I’ve spent the least amount of time at. I mean, I’ve watched maybe a third of one episode of the eponymous Donald Glover TV show, and once I had a flight through Hartsfield get canceled so I’ve spent a night in an airport hotel and had breakfast at, like, a nearby Denny’s or something there, but that’s it for my Atlanta experience.

But, on paper and statistically, the city looks like mostly a strength. It is the ninth-largest metropolitan area in America, and it famously has the busiest airport not just in the country but in the world. According to this Hartsfield-Jackson Airport fact sheet, it is located within a two-hour flight of 80 percent of America’s population.

While the Atlanta media market may be a little too large for an event like the Trials to earn blanket local coverage, the Olympic legacy angle should allow it to at least break through into the local consciousness and on the national scale hosting in a major market like Atlanta only makes an event seem more significant even if it doesn’t own the city that weekend.

Additionally, although it can sometimes be difficult for the Trials’ LOC to find partners that don’t conflict with existing USATF and USOC sponsors, Coca-Cola is among Atlanta’s most prominent companies, and is (as they take immense joy in reminding us repeatedly every two years) a major IOC and USOC sponsor; Powerade and Dasani, both Coca-Cola brands, are already partners with the the AJC Peachtree Road Race, and would likely embrace the opportunity to have a major USOC event in their backyard and find some way to further support an Atlanta Trials.

Course

Atlanta is a hilly city. Both the Atlanta (neé Georgia) Marathon and Peachtree are held on challenging courses with constant, substantial elevation change (a ¾-mile long 120-foot climb on the Peachtree route is famously referred to as Cardiac Hill). A route anywhere sensible in Atlanta will have at least a couple-hundred feet of climbing per loop and well over a thousand feet of climbing in total over its multiple loops. As USATF and most athletes would surely prefer a flatter, less-challenging course, this may not be ideal but it’s certainly challenging. Making an Olympic team isn’t easy in the first place.

While the course may not be ideal from a competition standpoint, from a storytelling standpoint Atlanta’s Olympic legacy gives it a huge leg up. The proposed course starts and finishes in Centennial Olympic Park, and runners will pass under the Atlanta Olympic cauldron and its Olympic rings-shaped arch with approximately two miles to go in the Trials. That sort of Olympic imagery will be a great anchor for media, especially the NBC broadcast team, in the build-up to the Trials and as the race unfolds (although one can only hope that they don’t use it too ham-handedly). The imagery of selecting the U.S. Olympic marathon team while literally passing in the shadow of the Olympic rings in the last U.S. city to host a Summer Olympics is a major selling point.

Weather

The 2018 Georgia Marathon was on Sunday, March 18, and the average historical low on that date is 45 degrees while the average high is 65. On this year’s race day the low temperature was 57 degrees and the high was 77. Record extremes in Atlanta on March 28 are 20 degrees (1902) and 84 degrees (1982). The average relative humidity in Atlanta in March at approximately 6 a.m. is 74, and the city receives an average of 4.8” of rain every March with an average of 10 days in the month having precipitation. Average instantaneous wind speeds in Atlanta in March (calculated 10 meters above the ground) are approximately 7 mph, with average speeds around 8 mph from 9am-4pm (the time window during which the Trials will almost surely be run).

In summary, the typical conditions in Atlanta in March are good, but there is a risk of rain on race day as well as some chance of warmer-than-ideal temperatures, although (and repeat after me, since you’ve all heard this several times now) a warm-weather Trials may not be viewed as a negative by USATF when selecting a team for what will likely be a warm-weather Olympic marathon.

LOC Strength

This is really where Atlanta’s bid shines. Spearheading Atlanta’s Trials bids is one of the premier running organizations in America, the Atlanta Track Club. They’re best-known for putting on America’s largest road race, Peachtree, and it’s a testament to their planning prowess that it doesn’t also turn into America’s largest mass heatstroke occurrence every year considering that it’s a 50,000+ runner 10k in Atlanta on July 4. Additionally, the ATC has substantial experience with elite athletes, having frequently hosted the USATF 10K national championships at Peachtree in recent years.

Also in their favor, the ATC is a non-profit. And, per their recent 990s (which you too can view by creating a free account at guidestar.org), they are a well-resourced one, with net assets of just under $4.3 million, including liquid assets of approximately $2 million. That $2 million number is an interesting one because between all the elements behind hosting the Trials (prize purse, licensing fee, event broadcast, production, operations costs, and official, sponsor, dignitary, and athlete hospitality functions) that is just above the estimated marginal cost of putting on the Trials.

That’s all a long way of saying that, even if the ATC were forced to shoulder the full cost of the Trials entirely out of its current liquid assets, it could. This is a luxury that not many other running non-profits have. That $2 million is an expense that no bottom-line driven, for-profit running event production company would adopt, regardless of cash on-hand. It’s a strong position for the ATC to be in, and sets them up to be able to think primarily about how to put on the best Trials possible rather than what expenses can be spared and which corners can be cut. After the backlash after the last Trials, this will be important in the decision-making process.

One thing worth noting, though, is that the ATC does not have a major marathon, yet ..more on that in a bit. Although the logistics of putting on a marathon on a 5-mile loop course for 300-400 elite competitors shouldn’t be a challenge for an organization used to putting on a 10k for 50,000+ competitors, it’s at least something worth being aware of.

X-Factors

Already noted above but worth re-emphasizing as an x-factor is Atlanta’s Olympic legacy. That is an angle not just for media storytelling about an Atlanta Trials, but also one that could engender buy-in from local residents and businesses who are still reflecting in the warm glow from hosting the 1996 Games. Whether it’s getting to “yes” with local officials who remember the magic of the rings, garnering support from local businesses, or turning out excited spectators and volunteers, the city’s Olympic legacy can play a role in all of that, and that matters when tacking on the Trials as a second day of racing to an already busy weekend of events.

Also of note in the x-factor category is that Meb Keflezighi has thrown his support behind the Atlanta bid. Although he is no longer competing, USATF likely wants to be seen as listening to the athletes when awarding this Trials after criticisms that they didn’t the last time. Atlanta having Meb’s support their bid is a way of showing USATF that athletes want the Trials to go to Atlanta. Also, I’m sure having him surprise the USATF officials on their site visit was a nice “wow” moment that I’m not sure that any of the other cities maybe matched.

(Editor’s note: A few other high profile athletes have expressed their support for Atlanta’s bid, including Olympians Deena Kastor and Jared Ward, and top American marathoners Allie Kieffer and Tyler Pennel.)

The last major x-factor is that the now-Atlanta Marathon has had a rocky history, changing ownership several times in recent history and for the last several years the then-Georgia Marathon has been somewhere between the 50th-100th largest marathon in America. For the 9th-largest metro area in the country, that’s a bit of an underperformance.

After this year’s race, the ATC announced that for next year’s event they will be changing the course and rebranding as the Atlanta Marathon. It’s a clear statement that the ATC plans to use the Trials as part of a plan to relaunch the Atlanta Marathon as a major American marathon. Of course, there will be the pomp, circumstance, and excitement about a new, (hopefully) larger, major event, which will only add to the “major event” feel of the Trials. But there’s also a lot that goes into launching basically a new event. If selected as the Trials host, the ATC will likely need to tap outside help to execute both the new Atlanta Marathon and the Trials successfully.

Assessment

4 Olympic rings (of 5 possible, obviously)

While there are still hills to be climbed (figurative ones for the event organizers, and literal ones for Trials competitors if Atlanta and its challenging course), Atlanta is the clear favorite to host the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team Trials Marathon. Atlanta is a major market with an Olympic legacy (and Olympic landmarks to run under); Meb’s support matters, showing that athletes will get behind an Atlanta bid in a way the never got behind L.A.; and Peachtree is a well-respected, major event with a substantial elite component that has allowed the ATC to build up the production and financial strength necessary to host the Trials. Yes, the Atlanta Trials course will be more challenging than would be ideal, and the Atlanta Marathon isn’t yet a major event, but it has all the pieces in place to where it could be, and many of those same pieces make it the right choice for USATF to host the Trials in 2020.


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