Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Time to Tweak the World Championships

Track and Field: 12th IAAF World Championships in Athletics

I remember looking forward to the first World Championships back in 1983. We had boycotted the 1980 Olympics, so the last time the US had participated in a global championships had been the Games of 1976! So it had been an eternity for track fans salivating for a global event.

Of course, to that point, the only guide that we had for such an event was the Olympics themselves. So that's what we got in 1983, the Olympics minus all of the other events, as the World championships emulated the Olympics in every way. The same number of participants per nation; "A" standards and "B" standards; four year cycle between events - in short another Olympic Games for track and field fans. But for a fan base that had traditionally gone four years between events, and was now looking at nine and desperate for our track and field "fix" it was perfect!

So it was that from 1983 to 1991 we had our track "Games" preceding the Olympic Games themselves - sort of a preview of the Games if you will. Then in 1993, we tweaked the World Championships and added another rendition following the Games. This gave us a three year cycle of Worlds/Olympics/ Worlds - the cycle that is still in place today.

Finally in 1997 we added the "bye" which enabled defending champions the right to entry into Worlds without having to earn a spot via their country's national championships - done in large part to facilitate getting double WR holder Michael Johnson into the meet following injury. This was the first real deviation that was taken away from duplicating the Games themselves - and remains the one thing that makes the World Championships "different" than the Olympics.

With the next World Championships not occurring until Daegu in 2011 (2010 is the off year in the cycle) I think its time for the sport to take a good look at making our Championships a "true" championships meet. With the revival of the ancient Games by Pierre de Coubertin, the format of the Olympics was created to facilitate bringing together the nations of the world to participate in an event based on brotherhood and good will - a global gathering as opposed to a championship event. Of course, sport was a great vehicle to do this and over time with the distribution of medals, the Olympics have become the worlds largest global "championships".

With only three athletes per nation being invited to the Games, however, the actual competition pool is greatly diluted, as not every country has high level competitors in each event. Jamaica for example, while strong in the sprints, has little to contribute in the distances. In contrast, Kenya and Ethiopia are dominant in the distances, but have nothing to contribute in the sprints. The result is that many athletes that are among the best in the world in their events are left at home because only three from each country are allowed to compete.

For example, of the top ten male steeplechasers on the clock this season, six were Kenyan - only three got the invite to Worlds. Of the top twenty one performers on the clock in the men's 100 meters nine were American, seven Jamaican, and five were from other countries - ten were left at home and did not get to compete in the World Championships.

Similar scenarios / numbers are played out event by event on both the men's and women's sides of the ledger. The bottom line is this: as a vehicle to get the World involved in athletics we do just as good a job as the Olympic Games; as a vehicle to present to the world the best of the best in a true championship setting we fall severely short! Because we leave far too many of our best athletes at home, and it is not uncommon to see athletes that did not get the invite to Worlds dominate others that did in competitions outside of the World Championships.

The Olympics do a fantastic job of providing the world with an arena where everyone can come and "play" in the name of brotherhood and good will. It is time for our sport to take the next step in our development and provide our fans with a "real" World Championships - and with over a year and a half ahead of us until the next World Championships, there is plenty of time to tweak the system and get all necessary changes in place.

The nice thing is that moving to a true championship should be relatively easy and pain free. The biggest change would be who gets invited. To make the transition the sport would simply have to invite the 64 top performers in the world at the close of all national championships. This would facilitate running four rounds per event - two if doubling up the number of athletes per round in the distances or field events. Since most national championships typically end somewhere between the end of June and middle of July, a cut off of July 15th should work fine. With the field being guaranteed each season the need for "A" and "B" standards will be eliminated with the focus being placed directly on the competition itself each season. In the event that we have ties at the 64th spot, we can go with the next best mark scenario. Bottom line is we ensure that the very best in the world end each season end up in Daegu, Moscow, or any other future World Championships.

The other change that I personally would like to see, is more of an attempt on the part of scheduling to allow for as many "doubles" as possible. For example, outside of the Olympics making the 200/400 double possible to facilitate an attempt on both by Michael Johnson, we NEVER see this double on the schedule of the Games or World Championships. All "natural" doubles should be facilitated. This would include 100/200, 200/400, 800/1500, 5000/10000, LJ/TJ, and SP/Disc. This would benefit those athletes that have the ability to compete in more than one event. But it would also add to the excitement for the fans, and make the event more saleable to the public.

It would make for the most exciting competition on the planet. No longer would we have first rounds that are relatively meaningless. Every heat, every round, every flight would be ultra competitive and take on added meaning - and showcase the depth of talent the sport has to offer. After a quarter century of competition, its time to make the World Championships just that, a World Championships. The Olympics can be about pageantry, we will be about competition.

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