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Sports Desk: A globe-trotting ‘nerd’ takes measure of the track world

David Katz taping down a blue line, marking the marathon route for the 2012 London Olympic Games. (Credit: courtesy)

David Katz makes no bones about it. Without hesitation, he declares himself a nerd.

“For the nerds of the world — I’m a nerd and I’m proud of it — this is my Olympics,” he said. 

By that he was referring to the overlooked world of distance measurement in track and field and road running, although the actual Olympics have been a big part of his life, too.

In a sense, bits and pieces of David Katz can be found all over the world. Well, not literally, but Katz’s influence in the track and road running world is international in scope.

Katz was one of five Americans who stood for election and won at the International Association of Athletics Federations Congress this past August in Beijing. The IAAF, as it known in shorthand, is the international governing body for track and field, with 213 member countries. Katz was re-elected to a fourth four-year term on the prestigious IAAF Technical Committee.

No country has more than one member on the 16-person committee, which oversees hundreds of technical rules on competition, everything from the accuracy of track measurements to how races are started to rules for different events. Track and field is a complicated sport with many events, and every event has its technical aspects.

Katz, 63, a part-time Village of Greenport resident, has worked at the Olympics, world championships and major track meets. His involvement in Olympic measurements extends over 32 years. He was the road course measurer for the 2012 London Olympic Games, and was recently appointed to the same role for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games. “I’m the first person to ever ask to do it again,” he said.

It has been estimated that Katz has assisted in measuring over 3,000 courses, including the marathon routes for the 1984 and the 1996 Olympic Games.

Katz’s résumé lists one achievement after another. He was a technical delegate for the 2014 World Indoor Junior Championships and has been selected to serve in the same capacity for the 2016 World Indoor Championships that will be held in Portland, Ore.

In addition, Katz has worked as the technical director for the Millrose Games, the Adidas Grand Prix, the New Balance Boston Indoor Games, the Goodwill Games and the New York Diamond League track meet. He is also a surveyor for the New York Road Runners Club.

“I love it,” Katz said in a phone interview Monday evening, one day after returning home from Denmark where he worked as the technical consultant for the Copenhagen Half Marathon. “I love the fact that I can actually help the sport move forward and help athletes and make it a better sport.”

Katz grew up in Coney Island and ran track for Abraham Lincoln High School in Brooklyn. He went on to compete for Fredonia State in Buffalo, graduating with his name attached to a bunch of school records.

A science teacher for 36 years, Katz in 1977 founded Finish Line Road Race Technicians, which at one time handled the organization of as many as a hundred road races a year. Katz said Finish Line has cut back to about half that amount. It is Katz’s equipment that can be found at the finish line of the New York City Marathon.

“I’ve been very, very fortunate,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of great opportunities.”

A pioneer of measuring, Katz had been doing it for over 10 years when people took notice and he was appointed to the first class of IAAF measurers in 1985.

Katz has kept busy since, traveling the world as an IAAF official. He has been to major cities like Beijing, London, Helsinki, Moscow, Paris and Monaco, where the IAAF headquarters are located. He has met world-class athletes like Jenn Suhr, an Olympic gold medalist and American record holder in the pole vault; Usain Bolt, the Jamaican sprinter who is the fastest man in the world; and Ashton Eaton, the American decathlete who last month broke his own world record.

Seeing world-class athletes up close in competition, Katz said, is “surreal.” He said: “They’re just absolutely magnificent, and they’re all nice people, too. They’re incredibly nice.”

Katz measures courses with the aid of a bicycle that has a special counter mounted on the front axle. The counter is calibrated before and after each measurement. “All my races are measured the exact same way,” he said.

Katz said his method for measuring courses hasn’t changed in 40 years, but Google Earth has made his job of mapping out course routes easier.

Katz spoke about an interesting link he has with the recently elected IAAF president, Sebastian Coe, who was an Olympic gold medal-winning middle-distance runner for Great Britain. Katz said a picture of Coe was on the cover of a Sports Illustrated issue during the Moscow Olympics in 1980. That same issue, he said, included a story about Katz with the heading, “David Katz discovered the wheel and brought order to road racing.”

“This is my attachment to Seb,” Katz said. “He’s a very good guy. He’s way high up on the food chain, way higher than I am. He’s a tremendous official.”

What drives Katz in his work?

“Precision, accuracy, the drive for accuracy,” he said, adding: “When you think about it, the athletes strive for perfection, so why shouldn’t people that do the technical part of their competition do the same? The athletes work hard. They work many years to get to a certain point, and people like me work just as hard for them.”

Katz and his wife, Frances, who has had a house in Greenport for over 25 years, will celebrate their 14th wedding anniversary on Tuesday. Frances has running in her blood, too. She has competed in 13 New York City Marathons.

Next on David Katz’s calendar is the Hamptons Marathon on Sept. 26. He said he still loves organizing and timing races.

“The thing that makes me most happy is making it work, when all the numbers click,” he said. “When you’re out there measuring, it’s just you. When you get it right, you get it right, and I think I get it right more often than not.”

That’s just the sort of thing that makes a nerd happy.

Photo Caption: David Katz taping down a blue line, marking the marathon route for the 2012 London Olympic Games. (Credit: courtesy)

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