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Posted: June 3, 2009  : Add to Mixx! Subscribe to stories like this

Athletics: Special Edition Blog - Whither the Bottle?

A blog by USA Track & Field Chief Operating Officer Mike McNees

In April, I had the pleasure of attending the heralded Penn Relays and "USA vs. the World" for the first time. Held on a perfect spring day, it was a rare event where the reality easily surpassed my expectations, and my expectations were pretty high. My most vivid memories of the day are of the blue sky, the green-and yellow-clad Jamaican fans, the outstanding performances of Team USA, the roar of the crowd ... and the water bottles.

I saw them first as well-organized armies of pallets holding stacks of shrink-wrapped cases waiting for action. Each bottle then lived a short and probably exciting (for a water bottle) life in a tub of ice on the infield, then in the hands of an athlete or official. Sadly, there were no survivors -- at the end of the meet on Saturday there was nary a full bottle to be found, only scores, even thousands of "dead soldiers" covering the infield, like the victims of some pint-sized plastic D-Day. Someone then had to pick them all up so they could be thrown away.

This, of course, is the catch. As sustainability pioneer William McDonough says, there is no such place as "away". Those pieces of shiny plastic are with us essentially forever, perhaps to be recycled into another shape, burned into carcinogenic dioxins, or broken down into smaller pieces to ultimately infiltrate our food chain (see link below).

Let's say that over the course of the Penn Relays Carnival, 10,000 athletes competed and each one took just one bottle of water. Some of those empty bottles are destined to live a second, recycled life, but eventually all 10,000 will be thrown "away". Repeat this process, albeit on a smaller scale, at every junior, masters, and every other kind of track meet or road race throughout the country on an annual basis. The impact of all of that plastic is enormous, and we're not even talking about other sports yet.

Certainly our elite athletes must take great care to not drink from unsealed containers, given the potential consequences of a positive doping test resulting from a tainted bottle. A career could certainly be ruined. This does not mean, however, that every 12-year-old miler or collegiate official needs bottled water. I participated in more than a few track meets in the days when bottled water was something my mom poured into the steam iron, and when suggesting one pay $4 for a bottle of water from a concession stand might get you committed. There are alternatives, not the least of which is the best public water supply in the world. It is a public water system, by the way, in which we have collectively invested billions of dollars, only to turn up our nose at in favor of an environmentally toxic plastic bottle filled with water that is produced and bottled without a fraction of the regulatory quality control of our public water.

The ban-the-bottle movement is not new, and at least two states have banned the use of public money for bottled water (second link below.) But in spite of growing awareness of things like the floating Pacific garbage patch (third link), the effects of plastics in our environment, the energy costs to produce and distribute bottled water, and the cost to buy it, that movement is gaining traction very slowly.

In the track and field community, we tend to see ourselves as the more erudite, enlightened end of the sporting spectrum. Is there a "greener" city than Eugene, Oregon, and is it simply coincidence that Eugene bills itself as "Track Town"? I think not. More likely there is a shared ethos between the track and field and environmental communities. My question is, do we continue to perpetuate bottled water, this poster child of our modern, unsustainable excesses, in the name of expedience, convenience, and profit? Or do we say that no, this we can stop?

Our challenge to coaches, associations, meet organizers, including organizers of USATF championship events, and anyone else in decision-making positions, is to say no to bottled water for your track and field events. If you're not sure what the other options are, call an old-timer like me - we'll remember, and be happy to share for all of our sakes.


USATF Chief Operating Officer Mike McNees traces his track and field roots to the days of cinders and drinking from a jug. In a 25-year public service career prior to coming to USATF, he served local governments in Florida and Idaho in many capacities, one of which was running the water department.

About USA Track & Field
USA Track & Field (USATF) is the National Governing Body for track and field, long-distance running and race walking in the United States. USATF encompasses the world's oldest organized sports, some of the most-watched events of Olympic broadcasts, the #1 high school and junior high school participatory sport and more than 30 million adult runners in the United States.
For more information on USATF, visit

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