Monday, February 9, 2015

To understand the Hawaii-Canada split, you have to understand what they split over

Discussions continue over the departure of Steve Brown from Ultraman and what it means that he may be developing a series of races to compete with his former partners. There are a lot of presumptions and perceptions involved in that first statement, and the jump-to-conclusions mat only rolls out farther from there. When people talk about what Ultra515 is doing and what Ultraman may or may not (or should or should not) do about it, they're speaking without understanding the position of either organization. Neither camp wants to talk about it. The problem is that leaves the floor open for others to talk, and that creates a situation where the organization spins its wheels answering to accusations rather than definitively communicating its position. This has been tried again and again at the highest level of sports management, and it never works.

That doesn't mean explaining it is easy. A lot of it happened right in front of my eyes, and it's still difficult to get my head around it. But I think for anyone to understand why the split occurred, you first have to understand what caused the initial crack in their solidarity.

In a word, it was UMUK.

Ultraman UK was an unmitigated disaster from start to finish. People will disagree with that because they made it from the start to the finish in three days without incident. But an officially organized race is about a lot more than just getting from point to point. There are contracts to negotiate and settle, permits to obtain, sanctioning standards to meet, and insurance to be purchased. These are the things that take place "behind the curtain" that the athletes never see. This is the essence of how race directors become "unsung heroes." All those things are essential to the athlete experience, but they're also supposed to remain behind the curtain. If the athletes are bothered about that stuff, then someone hasn't done their job right.

Simon Smith said he did all those things, but he didn't. I have been very careful in the course of my career in the use of the word "liar." It's a very strong word, and if you're going to use it you'd better be sure that you've caught the person red-handed in a lie. Simon Smith is a liar. He lied to Jane Bockus. He lied to Sheryl and David Cobb. He lied to Steve Brown. He lied to me. He lied to every single athlete that participated in his race. I'm pretty sure he lied to a few law enforcement authorities and national park officials in Wales. He didn't tell little lies, either. He told big, life-endangering, liability-incurring, entire-Ultraman-series-killing lies.

Jane Bockus and Steve Brown were in lock-step on the decision to terminate Ultraman UK. I think the fissure between them developed from Simon Smith's response to their decision. He tried to set up a "new" race that was "totally separate" from the Ultraman family of events. But it was still called UMUK. He said that UMUK was a name, not an acronym that stood for anything. It was a ham-fisted attempt at copyright infringement.

Jane and Steve had radically different views on how to respond. Steve worried tremendously that Simon would pull participants into his race, finally generate some cash flow, and expand elsewhere in Europe, tarnishing the Ultraman name and creating a stable of athletes who thought they'd qualified for the Ultraman Championships along the way. He wanted to start a race elsewhere in Europe immediately to establish a legitimate presence that could both silence and save potential suckers from Simon's event. Jane guessed that Simon couldn't organize a sock drawer and that UMUK wouldn't last more than two years. To her mind, and given the recent experience, it was potentially more dangerous to rush into a new race than to wait and see what happened. Either choice was a gamble. It's Jane's race, so Jane gambled her way.

As it turned out, it was the right way to bet in that situation. But it raised some stressful issues. That Simon even pulled the shenanigans he did revealed several weaknesses in the way Ohana Loa structures its relationship with the directors of its licensed events. It also made Steve uncomfortable that he had invested a lot of his life in an event that could be dramatically influenced by decisions he had only marginal say-so in. For Jane's part, I think the whole situation caused her a lot of stress and disappointment, and only made the process of starting up the Australian race even more difficult for her. It was obvious that there were some critical organizational issues that needed to be addressed, but there just wasn't time. To an extent, events began driving decisions.

Jane and Steve had always had philosophical differences, but they'd always been manageable. One way or another, they could come to terms over things. But UMUK was an unprecedented crisis in terms of both its size and severity. It was the type of thing that brings underlying differences to the forefront and makes them hard to forget. Looking back on it now, it strikes me just how much Steve and Jane would refer back to UMUM whenever they talked about their views on the future of Ultraman. The disagreements only increased in number and size ever afterward. I think the last thing they both agreed on was the wish that they'd never gotten mixed up with Simon Smith.

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