Monday, November 23, 2009

Will the Diamond League Improve the Sport ?

For twelve years The Golden League was the premier competition series in the sport. Run exclusively in Europe during the heart of the "Circuit", the six/seven meet series allowed a select group of athletes the opportunity to win all, or a share of a $1 million jackpot. Select meaning that only a handful of events qualified for jackpot competition each season.

After a dozen years, the Golden League is getting an upgrade to the fourteen meet "Diamond League" consisting not only of meets in Europe but adding competitions in Asia, the Middle East and the United States:

Doha (QAT) - 5/14
Shanghai (CHN) - 5/23
Oslo (NOR) - 6/4
Rome (ITA) - 6/10
New York (USA) - 6/19
Eugene (USA) - 7/3
Lausanne (SWI) - 7/8
Gateshead (GBR) - 7/11
Paris (FRA) - 7/16
Monaco (MON) - 7/22
Stockholm (SWE) - 8/6
London (GBR) - 8/13
Zurich (SWI) - 8/19
Brussels (BEL) - 8/27

Along with the additional competitions, however, comes a big change in how the money will be distributed. Instead of a single jackpot to be shared based on going undefeated in a handful of select events, the Diamond League will have a much larger ($6.6 million) total payout to the athletes with points being accumulated in thirty two events instead of a select few.

In the past, the format of the Golden League was really geared to a handful of athletes. With the idea of being undefeated central to the Golden League, once the first meet in the series was completed only those that won their events were still in contention for the jackpot. That meant that everyone else had little reason to compete - financially. The result was that the very elite (already with hefty contracts in tow) found it easy to only run selectively in Golden League meets. So while the Golden League meets became some of the best single day meets on the planet, they didn't do a very good job of bringing the best of the best together.

If this weekend's inaugural activities and announcements for the Diamond League are any indication, the best of the best seem to be much more attracted to the new format! At Sunday's launch in Monaco, we were presented with the athlete ambassadors of the Diamond League in the form of stars Yelena Isinbayeva, Kenenisa Bekele, Usain Bolt, Tyson Gay, Sanya Richards, Asafa Powell, Andreas Thorkildsen, Blanka Vlasic, and Steven Hooker - all of whom were also announced as contracted participants for 2010.

The idea of "contracting" with athletes is already reaping rewards, as via contracts with Bolt, Gay, and Powell, the Diamond League has guaranteed itself that at least one of the three fastest men in history will be competing in each of the fourteen meets. But not just in solo competitions, as it was announced that several meets will have at least two of the sprinters going head to head with Bolt and Gay going head to head at least THREE times during the summer! That's incredible given that they've competed against each other a total of two times in the past two seasons.

If the Diamond League can get several other events at this level - with the top two, three, or four individuals on stage together in several of these meets - then that alone will make the "upgrade" a huge success. Because this is what the sport needs desperately - get as many of its stars on stage as possible. This is the direction in which the sport needs to be headed -star studded fields, not races down the boulevard.

It also won't hurt that two of these meets will be based in the US - giving the American public a chance to see the world's best compete here at home. We've needed this type of exposure here at home for some time as to this point we've had nothing bringing a large number of "foreign" athletes to our shores outside of the Olympic Games every twenty or so years. So having Diamond League competitions every year should be a tremendous boost to marketing the sport here in the US.

So for me, the Diamond League is already doing its job - bringing the best together and bringing them to the US. Both of these things should help the league improve the sport. I'm looking forward to seeing the announced fields overall as the meets take shape. I'll also be looking forward to seeing what type of television contracts are negotiated. Especially here in the US. Exposure being critical to the expansion of this sport. But if the Diamond League does nothing but bring the best of the best together and give us a plethora of high level match ups, it will be a tremendous improvement over its predecessor.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Will Improvements in Middle and Long Distance Net More US Medals?

Track and Field: 12th IAAF World Championships in Athletics

Cross country season is always a good time to take a look at distance running. Especially this fall as for the first time in many years we're coming off a track season where we saw substantial improvement among our middle and long distance runners.

2009 saw a resurgence in our middle distance women and our distance running men such as we've not seen in a very long time. Not that we haven't seen individuals rise up on occasion. But, for me, I haven't been as excited about distance running since Alan Webb burst on the scene as a high school senior in 2001! Webb's breaking of Jim Ryun's HSR in the mile with his 3:53.43 run at the Prefontaine Classic brought huge excitement and hope to US distance fortunes.

This season saw that same excitement magnified many fold as several athletes had break out performances. From three women going sub 4:00 in the 1500 to two men running sub 13:00 in the 5000 we saw middle and long distance runners stepping up and into global contention, joining a handful of vets to give us more depth than we've ever had at this level.

On the women's side it was middle distance runners Maggie Vessey, Anna Willard, Christin Wurth Thomas, Jenny Barringer and Shannon Rowbury leading the way. On the men's side distance runners Dathan Ritzenhein, Matt Tegenkamp, Bernard Legat, Tim Nelson, Galen Rupp, and Anthony Famiglietti at the forefront. Giving us an annual list that looks impressive:

5000 Men
12:56.27 - Dathan Ritzenhein
12:58.56 - Matt Tegenkamp
13:03.06 - Bernard Lagat

10000 Men
27:22.28 - Dathan Ritzenhein
27:36.99 - Tim Nelson
27:37.99 - Galen Rupp
27:39.68 - Anthony Famiglietti

800 Women
1:57.84 - Maggie Vessey
1:58.80 - Anna Willard
1:59.35 - Christin Wurth Thomas
1:59.98 - Hazel Clark

1500 Women
3:59.38 - Anna Willard
3:59.90 - Jenny Barringer
3:59.98 - Christin Wurth Thomas
4:00.81 - Shannon Rowbury

With the next major another year and a half away (Daegu, 2011), do we have enough time to translate this recent improvement into positions on the medal stand? On the clock these athletes are running times that can get them on the podium. But championship running is about "racing" and I think that is where we need to take the next step - learning to run our best under championship pressure.

After all in spite of running 136 sub 4 minute miles and 3:47.69, Steve Scott only stood on the podium once in his career - racing tactics leaving him short on several occasions. Same for Steve Holman who was consistently one of America's and the world's fastest milers during the 90's never found his way to the podium. And though he broke the HSR and has dropped his best down to 3:46.91, Alan Webb is still in search of the podium. So, clearly, in distance running becoming a good tactician is as important as becoming fast!

With no medals at stake and rhetorically nothing to lose, I would hope to see all of the above racing frequently in Europe this coming year. If they never win a single race, being in fast "Circuit" races should help to sharpen their skills and prepare them for the tough, and often uneven paces, typically set by their African counterparts in major championships - the athletes that must be beaten if we have hopes of ascending the podium.

The European races can be tough, but it's toughness that will be needed come Daegu and London! The one thing that I like about the current group of middle/distance runners above is that they are a gritty bunch - seemingly unafraid to try to stay with tough paces and mix it up in traffic. Most of their PR's were set in tough races. And that is what gives me hope that they can indeed make a run at medals over the next couple of Majors.

So I'll be watching the summer racing in 2010 very closely as this should be a key season for all of the above. Especially if we can get the same kind of improvement from them in 2010 that we saw in 2009. Similar improvement and we could see an improvement in medals from this part of our team in Daegu and London.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Track and Field's Heroes


As we take time out to celebrate America's war heroes on Veterans Day, I thought it might also be appropriate to celebrate our Track and Field Heroes. After all, just as our veterans went in to battle to preserve the freedom of our nation, there have been many heroes in our sport that have paved the way and set standards for today's athletes to follow.

So following are some of the sport's greats. Athletes that I feel during my lifetime have made a difference and helped to make the sport great. I know there will be many omissions. That's one of the great things about this sport - we've had a plethora of stars pass through. And I'm sure everyone will have their own "list" to add. But that's what Veterans Day is all about - each one remembering in his/her own way. So here is my start to honoring the sports greats.

Carl Lewis

Love him or hate him (and there are those on both sides of the ledger) Carl made headlines and brought a tremendous amount of recognition to the sport. It was Carl, and manager Joe Douglas of the Santa Monica Track Club, that paved the way for professionalism in this sport in the 1980's. And being the world's preeminent jumper/sprinter gave Carl clout that few others had. Winner of 9 Olympic gold medals and 8 World Championship golds, Lewis brought a rock star attitude to the sport, fighting for financial parity with those of other sports. Often this put him at odds with meet promoters, federation officials, and even his peers, but Lewis made great strides in making money in this sport. If there was a pioneer on the way to professionalism it would have to be Lewis.

Evelyn Ashford

Evelyn came along in the middle of the Cold War and a period of dominance in women's sprinting by the "Eastern Bloc". East Germany's women were lead by world record setting stars Marlies Gohr and Marita Koch women who it seemed at the time were unbeatable as they routinely broke or ran close to WR times. But Ashford took on the "undefeatables" and defeated them both in a huge double victory in at the 1979 World Cup in Montreal. She continued throughout her career to defeat her rivals in the process taking the women's 100 into the 10.7 realm (10.76). She showed what hard work and perseverance can accomplish while defeating foes all knew to be a part of the East German systematic doping machine.

Edwin Moses

Before Moses came along the intermediate hurdles were an event you did if you weren't good at the open 400 or the high hurdles. Moses changes that with 13 strides of consistency. He brought focus and excitement to an event that no one had cared about before. He took his event to the edge of 47 seconds (47.02) while winning 122 straight races! During Moses reign the event grew in stature attracting better talent and becoming a center piece in meets throughout the world. In the process Moses became the model of perfection in his event and showed that brains were as important as brawn in sport.

Jackie Joyner Kersee & Heike Drechsler

Rivals and friends, between them they controlled the heptathlon, long jump, and a bit of the sprints during the 80's. In what was an evolving women's sport at the time, they took their events to new levels and their personal competitions against each other took on legendary status. They made 24 feet a standard in the long jump. Joyner Kersee took us past 7000 points on her way to 7291 in the heptathlon. Drechsler sped 21.74 to tie the WR in the 200. Outstanding performances aside, they epitomized good sportsmanship being fierce rivals on the track but friends off it.

Steve Ovett & Sebastian Coe

Speaking of legendary competitions and rivals, that's exactly what Ovett and Coe were. Tremendous rivals - to the point of being bitter rivals throughout their careers. Together, however, their rivalry brought the middle distances into the modern age. Coe took us to 1:42 (1:42.33) then 1:41 (1:41.73) in the 800. But it was in the 1500/mile where their rivalry took on epic proportions. Before they went back and forth trading records the records stood at 3:32.2/3:49.4. When they were done the records were 3:30.77/3:47.33 with 8 lowerings of the records between them! They showed the effect a true rivalry can have on the sport as they pushed each other to greatness.

Alberto Juantorena

I have to include "El Caballo". We've seen a lot of studs in this sport. Usain Bolt and Kenenisa Bekele are only the latest. Carl Lewis, Michael Johnson. Tommie Smith, Henry Rono and Said Aouita are among those that came before. But all of the above competed in multiple events that were similar - related sprints or related distance or middle distance events. Juantorena competed in a sprint event AND a middle distance and was dominant at both winning Olympic gold in both the 400 AND 800 - a feat forgotten by many. El Caballo was powerful and graceful and showed us all that just about anything is possible.

As I said, there are many others that can be named. But for me, these all taught us lessons in the sport. They paved the way for those that have come since. Setting standards that still hold strong in the sport today. So as we celebrate those who have fought for our freedom and kept America great, lets also celebrate those who have set standards of excellence in track and field and helped to make this sport great.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Shawn Crawford to John Smith!

Track and Field: 12th IAAF World Championships in Athletics

Shawn Crawford reported to camp today and began workouts with John Smith is the word I've gotten this afternoon. Potentially filling that void in Smith's camp left by the retirement of Maurice Greene in 2006.

Crawford brings an already impressive resume to practice. Bests of 9.88 and 19.79. Olympic gold medalist in 2004, he's also scored silver in the event in 2008, and bronze in 2001. Crawford has been one of the US's most consistent sprinters this decade, slowed only by foot problems in 2005 that seemed to hamper him for a couple of seasons. Crawford rebounded nicely in '08 and '09 as he ran 19.86 and 19.89 (19.73w) putting him squarely in the global mix and on the podium once again following his gold medal performance in '04.

Ironically Crawford is the man that everyone laughed at early in his career as he stated that his goal for the 200 meters was 18.99! A mark that everyone considered to be imaginary and too insane to even mention. Yet now Crawford moves to join Smith on the heels of two impressive seasons by Usain Bolt who has lowered the 200 record to 19.19 - extremely close to Crawford's "insane" 18.99!

So, can the man who lead the legendary career of Maurice Greene, and has Carmelita Jeter in the rarified air previously tread by only FloJo, put Shawn Crawford in reach of Usain Bolt? Well Smith has shown the ability to coach speed, having piloted the careers of Greene (9.79), Ato Boldon (9.86), Jon Drummond (9.92), Jeter (10.64), and Torri Edwards (10.78) among others.

And in spite of Crawford's Sub20 second runs over the past couple of seasons, he's done so with bests of only 10.09 and 10.21 in '08 and '09 - far off his PB of 9.88. Indicating that Crawford, who will be 32 in January, has greatly improved in strength, but his need now is to get back the speed! Crawford, like Bolt and Tyson Gay, is a burner on the turn. So perhaps if he can get close to these men in speed, he may indeed be competitive with them over 200 meters!

Time, of course, will tell the tale. But 2010 is a good year for a change as there will be no major championship on the line. Giving Crawford a chance to put in a full season of work with Smith before being under the gun for the World Championships in Daegu in 2011. So if Smith can get Crawford back to that 9.8 zone, we could possibly see another sprinter in that 19.5 and below range - and Crawford in search of that 18.99 that everyone once laughed at.

Regardless of how it turns out, I'm glad to see someone with true talent make the move to Smith. Because if we are to regain our position in the world of the sprints its imperative that we get our best talent in the hands of our best coaches! Hopefully this is the start of good things. After all, Linford Christie and Donovan Bailey both did their best running late in their careers, with thirty being only an imaginary barrier. And so far the thirties have been kind to Shawn. I wish him the best.