The United States track and field team can no longer rely on sheer strength in depth after a “dramatic underperformance” at the Tokyo Olympics says athletics great Michael Johnson.
The United States won seven athletics golds, more than any other nation but almost half the 13 they picked up five years ago in Rio.
Disregarding the Moscow 1980 Games which was boycotted by American athletes, Tokyo is the first time its men have failed to win an individual track title in Olympic history.
“If you took at the way we approached the national teams and you put that in any other country that didn’t have the sort of depth that we have, this would have been a failure a long time ago,” four-time Olympic champion Johnson told BBC Sport.
The United States athletes must win a place at their national trials, with previous major Championship performances, times and injuries disregarded.
Donavan Brazier, who won the world 800m title in Doha less than two years ago, was left out of the Olympic team after finishing outside the top three places.
“The system is set up in a way where the team selects itself – you have the trials and the first three across the line in every event – those are your three,” explained Johnson.
“A long time ago that worked because we had so much depth. I don’t think we will be able to get away with that any more.”
Brazier was not the only American world champion to fail to follow up success in Doha with victory in Tokyo.
Hot favourite Grant Holloway stumbled to silver in the 110m hurdles, Noah Lyles won bronze in the 200m, world leader Trayvon Bromell failed to reach the 100m final, while 100m specialist Christian Coleman is banned for whereabouts failures with doping officers.
While the emergence of young stars, such as 800m champion Athing Mu, have provided some highlights, Johnson says athletics in the United States is coming under pressure with declining public profile and pressure on the collegiate system that produces most of its talent.
“The decline in coverage hits the US pretty significantly, probably more so than any other country, because our sports landscape is so crowded with so many team leagues – we have the NFL, the NBA, major league baseball and hockey,” he said.
“All those sports are going to dominate from a fan perspective.
“At college level. basketball and football are producing far more revenue than expenses and that revenue is shared among all of the teams.
“The revenue-producing sports support the non-revenue-producing sports. When those budgets start to come under pressure, the sports that get cut are the non-revenue producing sports and track and field is one of those.”
Where the United States failed to pick up medals, there were other countries ready to capitalise and Johnson said some countries like Italy and Poland had taken a contrasting approach, targeting events such as relays where quick gains can be made with practice, or with weaker fields.
Italy and Poland came second and fourth in the athletics medals table, picking up titles in relays and race walks.
“They will look at the future of the sport and different events and see where there are areas that are maybe a little bit soft and they maybe reconcile that with where they’ve got talent coming through,” said Johnson.
“They will take their limited resources and put them into the areas that they feel they have a chance to produce medals.
“You see India win its first medal ever [men’s javelin] – they brought in a specific javelin coach from outside to develop that talent. That’s what these countries are doing – they are looking at areas like relays where it may be getting a little soft there.
“I don’t think UK Athletics are doing that sort of thing, and the US doesn’t necessarily need to do that.
“But they need to start to pay a bit more attention to how things have been trending over the past few Olympic cycles and what is happening with the rest of the world. They need to determine the best long-term adjustments that need to be made to ensure that we reach our potential.”