“I would have voted the same way — on the basis we need younger people over the long haul,” Chaplin said Monday in a phone interview. “[Directors] have come to the conclusion they need to think over the long haul.”
Hightower, USATF’s president since 2008 and the board’s chairman, defeated current IAAF Senior Vice President Bob Hersh for the IAAF nomination by an 11-1 vote in December. It was reaffirmed by a 12-1 vote Saturday in Santa Monica, with Olympic race walker Curt Clausen again the dissenter.
Hightower is 56. Hersh is 75.
Chaplin, 78, a retired member of the USATF board and former chairman of the powerful Men’s Track & Field Committee, guided the men’s track team at the 2000 Sydney Games. He observed the Santa Monica board meeting at a beachside hotel.
In December, delegates at the USATF annual meeting in Anaheim favored Hersh for the IAAF Council by a 392-70 vote, leading to an outcry when the board chose Hightower instead.
Chaplin’s support of Hightower might be considered ironic. At the 1984 Olympic Trials in Los Angeles, Chaplin said, he made the final call on a photo finish in the 100-meter hurdles. He picked Hightower for fourth place after a three-way tie for second.
Fourth meant no Olympic team.
But in the 1990s, Chaplin chose Hightower as the first woman to aid his men’s team at an IAAF World Indoor Championships, he said.
“She was a hard worker and did a good job” Chaplin said from his home outside Pullman, Washington, where he was a successful track coach at Washington State University for 21 years.
He said he worked with Hightower for years when she was chairwoman of the Women’s Track & Field Committee.
As a technical official on the international stage, Chaplin doesn’t see a problem with USATF possibly losing a voice at the highest levels of the International Association of Athletics Federations — track’s world governing body.
“There are no consequences,” he said of change in U.S. representation. “Some of the good ol’ boys” (on the IAAF Council) like each other. (But) governments change,” possibly leading to new members of the 27-member council.
“I knew all these people,” he said. “Some are friends of Bob [Hersh]. Some are not friends of Bob.”
Chaplin is known for being blunt-spoken. He once told a reporter why the 1500-meter field at the Olympic qualifying meet couldn’t be expanded from 30 to 36 by saying, in part: “The Olympic Trials are not a goddamn all-comers meet.”
On Monday, Chaplin predicted who would win the coveted presidency of the IAAF when its congress meets in August at the Beijing World Championships.
“[Sebastian] Coe is probably going to win,” he said of the former British middle-distance star and Olympic champion who oversaw the 2012 London Games. Coe’s rival for president — pole vault legend Sergey Bubka — would probably suffer for his Ukrainian nationality, Chaplin suggested.
But Chaplin didn’t see how Hightower had pressured her fellow board members to back her for the IAAF slot.
“Take a good look at that board,” he said. “There’s no way you could twist their arms.”
He also agreed with board vice chairman Steven Miller, who noted during Saturday’s debate that USATF constituencies can punish board members by removing them.
“They can get rid of anybody they want to get rid of,” said Chaplin, who noted that he was elected Men’s Committee chair three times despite taking stands than rankled some. In 2013, Chaplin won USATF’s Robert Giegengack Award, the group’s highest honor for a volunteer.
“The real story [out of the Santa Monica meeting] is that the board had enough sense to have an open meeting [on the IAAF debate], and the decision was made.”
Reaction to Chaplin’s comments included message board comments with a snarky tone: “I thought Darth Vader died,” said Michael Roth, a longtime critic of USATF.
Weldon Johnson, co-founder of letsrun.com and a fierce opponent of the Hightower selection, told Times of San Diego: “John Chaplin has made many of the capricious decisions at USATF championships that [have] left athletes feeling like they have no voice. So I’m not surprised he backs the board ignoring its members.”
And USATF activist Becca Gillespy Peter, who like Chaplin lives in Washington state, shared her views of the board’s action, saying she was pleased with its effort to be more transparent in decision-making process, “but disappointed that the conversation focused on gender rather than the qualifications or goals of either candidate.”
She said she supported the shrinking of the board size several years ago to make it more efficient, but “it is clear that the system needs a few tweaks.”
“I hope that those who are unhappy with the process will embrace the sport and help change it for the better,” Peter said via email Monday. “Moving forward, we do not need to focus on negativity and mud-slinging, but on the opportunities we have ahead of us to make this sport better.”
Updated at 7:30 p.m. March 16, 2015