What Is the USATF, Anyway?

This USATF thing is certainly all over the running news, but every time we at Salty Running start talking about it behind the scenes we aren’t exactly sure how to take a stand because, well, USATF is complicated. We know it makes the rules in the USA for Track and Field; it measures race courses, puts on races, certifies track coaches, and has a handy route-mapping app on its website. Beyond that though, its definition, or what it does and what it is, is kind of fuzzy, like a bunch of letters swimming in a bowl of soup.

After weeks of the same conversations and repeated frustration over what the heck is going on at the USATF, I had enough. I bit the bullet and did some research to uncover the basics about the USATF. Read on after the jump to find out what USATF is, how it’s structured and how it relates to other big sports associations that are equally fuzzy. We’re going to keep this at a high level, but don’t worry! We’ll be back to dig deeper in future installments. 

Let’s start with what the most basic of basics, the easiest information to find on the Internet about what USATF is:

The USATF is the Governing Body of the Sport of Track and Field in the U.S.

Very broadly, The USA Track and Field Association (USATF) is a national governing body of the sport of track and field. The sport of track and field includes track races, field events, road races, cross country races, trail and ultrarunning, and race walking events.

So what is a governing body?

Well, in the simplest of terms, a governing body is a group of people who develop policies and direct the affairs of something. Examples of governing bodies are school boards, which make policy for schools or a board of directors of a company, which directs the affairs of a corporation. The USATF is a governing body that makes policy and directs the affairs of the sport of track and field.

The USATF’s mission.

The USATF’s mission statement is this: “USA Track & Field drives competitive excellence and popular engagement in our sport.” Ideally, any governing body serves to protect the interests of the community it oversees and often the community at-large. For instance, a medical licensing board creates rules to ensure only those people who are fit to be doctors are able to get a license. A medical licensing board makes decisions to prevent whack jobs (or teenagers) from practicing medicine, which is bad for the medical profession’s reputation and bad for patients. Likewise, the governing body of track and field, the USATF, exists to maintain the integrity of the sport of track and field. Whether all of the USATF’s policies and decisions actually accomplish this is a point of debate, but for now, understanding why there is a USATF and what it purports to do is all we need to worry about.

What does the USATF do?

USATF does many things, but generally speaking, its main duties are to provide rules and standards for the sport of track and field. The USATF drafts rules for everything from race officiating, coach education, athlete development, and competition. It also sets the standards for things like course measurements and championship and Olympic Trials qualifying standards. Additionally, the USATF establishes programs to grow the sport of track and field, like its Run Jump Throw initiative, which is aimed at teaching children the fundamentals of track and field.

Structure of the USATF

To really understand the USATF and some of the news and controversies surrounding it, we will need to explore how the USATF is structured. Particularly, we need to understand its parts. [For all you visual learners, no fear! We’ve included an organization chart below.]

The Board

The Board of Directors is the hub of the USATF.

Who is on the Board?

The Board is made up of 15 unpaid volunteers including:

  1. The International Association of Athletic Federations’ (IAAF) [will explain more below] Council member from the U.S.;
  2. The USATF President;
  3. Six representatives, one representing each of six committees (e.g. High Performance, Long Distance Running, etc.);
  4. One person representing another sports governing body, like the NCAA or RRCA.
  5. Three independent members selected by the Nominating and Governance Panel; and
  6. Three Athletes, including at least one male and one female and one alternate athlete.

Some of the Board members are automatically appointed, like the U.S. IAAF Council representative, while others must be elected, like the USATF Committee representatives who are elected by their respective committees.

What does the Board do?

Generally speaking, the Board works to make sure the USATF as a whole is furthering its mission to “drives competitive excellence and popular engagement in our sport.” It also makes sure the USATF is functioning, including selecting Officers of the Board, committee leadership, ensuring financial solvency of the organization, and hiring key employees like the Chief Executive Officer (CEO).

The Officers of the Board

The Board selects Officers, all of whom are also unpaid volunteers, including a President, Chairman, Vice Chair, Secretary, and Treasurer. Here are the current USATF Officers:

  • Chairman: Steven Miller
  • President and Vice Chair: Stephanie Hightower
  • Secretary: Darlene Hickman (nonvoting)
  • Treasurer: Kenneth Taylor

The Chairman sets the Board’s meeting agenda and presides over the meetings.

The President is tasked with ensuring that the USATF rules, called bylaws, are executed. The President appoints Committee leaders, is the immediate supervisor of the CEO, and otherwise makes sure the Board resolutions are carried out.

The Secretary, as you would expect, handles the Board’s record keeping, but is not allowed to vote on Board matters.  The Treasurer, naturally, manages the organization’s accounting and is a voting member of the Board along with the rest of the Officers.

The National Office Staff

The Board hires a staff to do the work of the organization. The most powerful of the paid staff is the CEO. While the CEO cannot vote on matters of the Board, the Board has sole hiring authority in choosing who will serve as the CEO and the Board is essentially the CEO’s boss.

  • CEO: Max Siegel

The Board Committees

The Board appoints members to several committees to make specialized rules and policy for those areas. The USATF’s Board Committees include:

  • Administrative
  • General Competition (e.g. masters track and field, associations [see below], and clubs)
  • High Performance (e.g. track and field and racewalking)
  • Joint Development (e.g. coaching education, sports medicine and science and athlete development)
  • Long Distance Running (e.g. road racing and trail and ultraracing)
  • Youth

The 5C & 5D Members

The 5C Members are other governing bodies that have the capabilities of choosing members for national championships, like the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC). The 5D Members are other governing bodies overseeing things related to the USATF, like the Road Runners Club of America (RRCA) which oversees road racing. They are organizations that have an interest in furthering the USATF mission and counsel the USATF on the creation of its policies and procedures.


The USATF does most of its work through its associations, which are “divided into [57] mutually exclusive geographic areas of the United States.” So when you join the USATF as an athlete, you actually join your local association. For example, I’m a member of the Lake Erie Association which covers the northern part of Ohio. Additionally, every club that joins the USATF, joins under the applicable association and when a race director wants to have the USATF certify her race, she contacts her local association to do it. 


How the USATF Relates to Other Governing Bodies

The USATF organization is complex as we discussed above, but where the USATF stands in relation to other governing bodies of sports is also complicated. But it’s not impossible to understand.

So, first, remember that the USATF is the governing body of the sport of track and field in the U.S. Got that? Now we’re ready to see where it fits.


tfathleticsLet’s start with the International Association of Athletic Federations, otherwise known as the IAAF. While the word “athletics” refers to all sports in the U.S., outside of the U.S. track and field is called athletics. So looking at the full name of the IAAF, and if you substitute the word “athletic” for “track and field” it all makes sense! The IAAF is the governing body of the governing bodies of the sport of track and field. The IAAF is the governing body of the USATF and the 214 other countries’ track and field governing bodies. The IAAF has the authority to suspend or expel a nation’s track and field governing body, as it recently suspended Russia’s over doping scandals.

Instead of a Board like at the USATF, the IAAF has a Council and a Congress that create the rules for the IAAF. The Council makes very high level decisions, like which national track and field governing bodies should be allowed into the IAAF. The Council is smaller than the Congress and each member of Council is elected by the Congress. The USATF has one representative on the IAAF Council and that person is also automatically on the Board of the USATF as explained above.

The IAAF Congress makes most of the rules for the IAAF. Each country is allowed no more than three members of its track and field governing body to serve on the IAAF Congress. The USATF appoints its President, its CEO, and one other delegate it selects to serve on the IAAF Congress and to give the USATF a voice in international track and field standards and policy.


What about the U.S. Olympic Committee, otherwise known as USOC? The USOC is the governing body of the U.S. Olympic Program. It’s mission is “to support the U.S. Olympic athletes in achieving sustained competitive excellence while demonstrating the values of the Olympic Movement, thereby inspiring all Americans.” So, the USOC creates policy and programs to foster world-class athletes and to generally promote the Olympics in the U.S. To do this, it selects the governing bodies of each Olympic sport to create qualifying standards for athletes to be on the team among other things (the USOC can suspend or replace a sport’s governing body if it chooses to). The USATF, in particular, is in charge of choosing which track and field athletes will represent the U.S. and compete on Team U.S.A.


The International Olympic Committee, otherwise known as the IOC, is the governing body of the Olympic Games, themselves and the international governing bodies of each Olympic sport establish the rules and organize qualifying events for the Olympics. For track and field, then, it is the IAAF that makes the rules about which track and field athletes may compete at the Olympics. How does the USATF fit in? The USATF chooses which of the U.S. track and field athletes who have met the minimum Olympic qualifying standards set by the IAAF compete for Team U.S.A.

To torture Cinnamon, we had her try to make a Venn diagram to illustrate how USATF fits in with the Olympics and IAAF. Of course, she did it wrong and is frantically trying to figure out how to make it all make visual sense.


What else would you like to know about the USATF? Did we miss anything you think is important? 

Salty Running boss and mother of 3 little ones with PRs of 3:10:15 (26.2), 1:25:59 (13.1) and 18:15 (5k). I love to write about running culture, mental training, and fitting in a serious running habit with the rest of a busy life.

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  1. Cinnamon, nice work on the Venn diagram! It might be helpful to note that the IAAF governs USATF as to matters involving international competition. So, purely national, regional or local competition is only governed by the USATF – that would be “your local marathon” which lies within the USATF, but outside the IAAF. We didn’t touch on this in the body of the post, so thought I’d explain that quickly here 🙂