A hundred days from now, the greatest track and field athletes on Earth gather in Eugene, Oregon, for the 18th World Athletics Outdoor Championships — the first time on US soil.
The best of times for American track?
A 24-year-old track coach and Ohio State graduate is asking tough questions with a documentary film ambitiously examining the state of US track and field. He’s curious about the sport’s “Achilles’ heel” of governing bodies, “their size and bureaucracy.” And what needs to change.
But Alexandru “Alex” Andrei is running into hurdles.
Andrei, a Romanian emigre at age 5 with degrees in biology and exercise science, has interviewed 65 people, mainly Olympic-class athletes and coaches. But the sport is overseen domestically by USA Track & Field and funded primarily by Nike.
Andrei — who’s been to Nike World Headquarters near Beaverton, Oregon, and was profiled last year by USATF — has hit a wall with the sportswear giant and Indianapolis-based USATF.
“I’ve just kind of been snuffed out and not given the time of day when I tried to create these conversations,” he told the Times of San Diego.
A month ago, he released a 9-minute “super trailer” of his film (after a 2-minute teaser) in hopes of ginning excitement for the project’s summer release and opening up “some of these conversations with where the money is.”
Critics of USATF are given a central voice.
“Most disorganized major sport that I’ve ever seen,” Brooks Beasts head coach Danny Mackey says in the trailer.
Isaiah Harris, a middle-distance star, calls for restructuring the sport “from top down…. Some people at the top making a lot of money, not trickling down to athletes very well.”
And Sinclaire Johnson, an NCAA champion at 1500 meters, notes a prohibition against wearing more than one sponsor’s logo.
“That rule needs to change,” she says, citing NASCAR drivers as a model.
USATF and Nike didn’t respond to Times of San Diego requests for comment. But Andrei is still reaching out, hoping to land on-camera interviews.
One concern may be a federal criminal investigation into financial ties between USATF and Nike, which in 2014 announced a sponsorship from 2017 through 2040 reported to be worth $475 million over time.
Andrei doesn’t mention the District of Columbia probe in his trailer, concluding with the theme: “I show up for the sport.”
(Athletes appearing in the trailer include Olympic medalists Galen Rupp, Shalane Flanagan, Clayton Murphy and Ryan Crouser plus current stars Elle Purrier St. Pierre, Devon Allen, Cole Hocker and Cooper Teare.)
Andrei says the documentary, which “came into focus” in January 2021 amid the pandemic, is a bigger undertaking that he expected.
“I really was just journaling about where I see the sport going and all of the incredible things that were about to happen in … 2021,” he said in a phone interview. “I realized that while they were [good-intentioned] individuals sharing stories, I really didn’t see any collective story told about the sport here in America.”
He envisioned a short film that would debut before the Tokyo Olympics.
“But I like to say that it spiraled out of control in the best way possible,” he says. “The more and more people I talked to and the more athletes and coaches that I began having these conversations with, I realized that it wouldn’t do the sport justice to stop where I was planning to.”
So on his own dime he began flying out to meet, “pleading for media credentials left and right.”
The aim is a « history-in-the-making documentary about where the sport is right now here in America — what the issues we’re facing are as a community, as a sport. »
He hopes to reveal why the track is run as it is.
“Even the average fan, who will watch more than the Olympic Games, doesn’t understand how it operates at an industry level,” he said. “My goal is to try to level the playing field in terms of information for how the sport operates, what nuances exist that make it difficult for athletes to succeed. Or for fans to watch the sport, even.”
His fantasy: To “bring all these people you would never see in the same room … to sit at the same table and give their 2 cents.”
Who is this young filmmaker with grand visions?
Andrei calls himself a jack of all trades — with coaching “a little bit on the back burner.”
He worked with middle-distance and distance runners at Worthington Kilbourne High School in Columbus, Ohio, and a couple of athletes starting to “get toward that national level in distance running.” And he has “freelance contracts” with different companies.
He works as a mental health specialist at a Columbus children’s hospital.
Andrei came to track after being banned from spring lacrosse following two concussions.
“I joined the track team my sophomore year after already running cross country for four years. It came pretty natural to me,” he said. As a senior in 2016, four Dublin Coffman High School teammates of his won the 4×800 relay at the New Balance National indoor track championship in New York City.
Andrei, a junior varsity “Captain of the Year,” ran an 18:45 5K in high school and got his mile “down to 5:20.”
“Never went sub-5,” he says. « It’s still haunting me. »
At Ohio State, he joined a running club that vied with major Big Ten clubs and DII and DIII schools.
“I was having a breakout season, getting PRs at the 800 and mile. Then the coronavirus hit,” he said. « Everything kind of fell apart after that. »
Still trying to stay in shape, he was getting close to his 5K PR this past season when a string of knee injuries hobbled him — “bursitis in my left knee, and a cortisone shot at age 23.”
For his documentary, he attended 11 meetings and even visited Olympian Wheating in his Portland back yard.
“I know exactly where I want to go” with the film, he says. “I’ve been sitting on some of this content for over a year. .. I’m slowly starting to pull it out. And now that it’s out, I’m very excited that people are reaching out about it. And talking about it.”
He didn’t see his self-financed film — whose musical score is being done by a « high school phenom » — as a « money grab by any stretch of the imagination. »
He pictures two audiences: track fans and the lay person who says “Oh, I did track in middle school” but can’t name a track star besides Usain Bolt.
“My goal also is to make it digestible for somebody who doesn’t know the inner workings of track and field at all,” Andrei says. « The fact of the matter is a track and field fan … they’ll probably see it, and they’ll probably watch it. Whether they like it, love it or hate it — that’s a whole other conversation.”
If his track project isn’t dramatic enough, he can always turn to his family story.
Before the 1989 revolution, Andrei’s father was a Romanian freedom fighter.
He eventually tried to flee — stowing away with his brother aboard a ship. But he was caught and spent a year and a half in a communist prison.
« My father … escaped and made it out to Greece, and after six months a church in Pennsylvania sponsored him to … start a new life in America. » (He now lives in Columbus.) He came off the plane with a bag of clothes and a pocket of change. I respect him a ton.
« He’s the epitome of the American dream. »