Tuesday, October 5, 2010

My Vision For the World Championships

BERLIN - AUGUST 23:  South Korean dancers perform during the Closing Ceremony during day nine of the 12th IAAF World Athletics Championships at the Olympic Stadium on August 23, 2009 in Berlin, Germany.  (Photo by Martin Rose/Bongarts/Getty Images)

Yes, I know it’s October and we just had the opening ceremonies for the Commonwealth Games.  But with the majority of top line athletes missing from the Commonwealth, my mind can’t help but fast forward to the next gathering of the world’s best athletes – the World Championships in Daegu. Of course it really won’t be a gathering of the world’s best athletes which is why I am writing about my vision now – while there’s still plenty of time to make a short term change or two.

The mother of all “gatherings” is the Olympic Games, and everything that has followed has been put together in it’s image including the Commonwealth Games, Pan American Games, and the World Championships among others. Not that the Olympics aren’t a good role model, but the Modern Olympics were established as a means of using sport to bring the nations of the world together to further world peace. Using this as a guideline the Games were designed to ensure that every nation got the opportunity to participate – because it is the participation that is central to the Games. Every nation was encouraged to enter a team with set numbers of participants invited. In track and field each team was limited to 3 participants per individual event and a relay entry per relay event.

That model has been used in subsequent incarnations of the Olympics – Commonwealth, European Championships – and was carried through to the World Championships. Of course there is only one Olympic Games, which is why I think it’s time to break from that model and redesign the World Championships. After all, Worlds is not about “participation” it is supposed to be the sport’s showcase of it’s BEST athletes in competition for world titles. But with the “3 per nation” limit, many of the world’s top athletes are left home watching the festivities – because there just isn’t “equity among nations” when it comes to sports. This is just one of the problems I see with the World Championships the way they are currently constructed. So following are some criticisms I have of the current World Championships structure and how I would change the event to make it better.


Add a World Championships to the “Off” Season

Major sports have championships every year. For many it’s their defining game each year. When you say NFL you think Super Bowl. It IS the season. Same for Major League Baseball and the World Series. It’s really what everything else is geared towards. Right now with track and field having an “off” season, the athletes, fans, and media really take the year off! For a sport looking for recognition and trying to create a global identity an “off” year every four years just isn’t getting it done. And here in the US it’s just murder. We need to get our best athletes front and center as often as possible. And since in many events we don’t get our top athletes competing against each other until the Olympics / Worlds it means we have a near two year gap between meaningful match ups during the four year cycle. That’s just not acceptable. Yes, there will be injuries, and athletes will get tired, etc, etc – I can hear some crying now that that’s just too hard. No different than other sports where a top level athlete is injured or has a down season, or any number of issues that change the dynamics on teams. In that case everyone else shows up and that athlete (or athletes) sits one out. That’s a part of sport. There are still more opportunities than back in the day when there was one opportunity every four years and if you happened to be hurt at the wrong time it could mean an eight year wait!


Modify the 3 Athletes Per Nation Rule

The World Championships is supposed to bring the best of the world together to compete. Currently far too many top level athletes are left home each year from nations all over the world. My suggestion is that the top 20 athletes on the yearly lists at the close of June each year be allowed to participate at Worlds. That will mean that there will be more than 3 athletes from some nations in each event. You could end up with 10 Americans and Jamaicans in the 100; or 12 Kenyans in the steeple; or similar representation in many events by many nations. I think that’s a good thing, because we are getting our best athletes competing head to head. We then allow 3 athletes per nation from remaining nations to fill out a field of 63 in each event to create a series of heats / quarterfinals / semis / finals. I choose the end of June as the cut off because that gives everyone an opportunity to compete at their respective national championships – which often is where the best marks are made. I would also make participation in your national selection meet mandatory in addition to having a top tier time.


Eliminate the “Bye” for Defending Champions

Let’s be honest. The bye was created because Michael Johnson was injured in ‘97 and couldn’t make nationals. So the bye was created to get him in the meet. This sport is supposed to be about competition, and if you want to become champion again you need to go through the fire. By modifying the 3 athletes rule, if you are in the top 20 in your event AND you compete in your national championships, you qualify for Worlds. If you want to prove yourself at Worlds you must start by being among the best in your own country. No bypassing the championship meet. No other championship allows the previous champion to go directly to the championship! And quite frankly this has lead to many many let downs at nationals all over as the best athletes simply skip it because they don’t have to compete. Wrong message to send in a sport where perhaps the biggest problem we have is in getting out top athletes on the track! And as I said when discussing adding another Worlds in the off season, if you’re injured that’s just part of sport – there will be another opportunity next year. It’s not fair that some people get to sit out while others have to work their way in. No other sport let’s a champion sit out and wait for the competition to come to him or her – or to the team. A major part of the excitement leading up to a championship is watching to see how the defending champion is doing and watching them work their way back to the top!


The World Championships Should be Run in the Same Order as the NCAA Championships

I’m not sure exactly how the order of events has evolved for the Olympics and/or World Championships. What I do know is that I’ve watched high school championships and collegiate championships for well over 40 years and there is no more exciting schedule for the sport! You start out with a relay and you end with a relay. Every manner of “doubles” is possible – 100/200, 100/400, 200/400. 400/800, 800/1500, 1500/5000, 5000/10000, 100H/400H, LJ/TJ, SP/Disc, and a few others. If relays are the most exciting part of a meet, doublers create the most exciting stories in a meet! Any time you can get an athlete like Usain Bolt, Tyson Gay, Allyson Felix, Sanya Richards, Bernard Lagat, Kenenisa Bekele, among others, on the track on multiple occasions you are doing the sport a tremendous favor! And given that there are almost no opportunities for athletes to double during the season I think it would behoove the sport to develop as many opportunities as possible in the championship meet.


World’s Should be the Final Event of the Year

Again, going back to high school and college championships, there is much to be said for the championship meet being the FINALE of the season. Especially given that a large number of athletes already treat it as such! By the close of the Olympics or Worlds many athletes are spent. They’ve given their best efforts of the year and they are ready for a break. Trying to put together quality fields in the aftermath of a “major” can be quite difficult. Besides, everything that follows is anticlimactic at that point. Occasionally there is some interest in  “post season” match ups. But just what does it mean once all the titles have been bestowed? Like other major sports, make the championship meet the goal of the season. Close out the season with THE meet of the year and then look forward to what the next season will bring.


Rotate Continents as Well as Host Cities

Now that I’ve covered the meet itself, my final suggestion is that the World Championships become truly global. And for that to happen it needs to be taken all over the world. So to that end I propose that a schedule be put together by continent for the meet to be held. Then bids can be taken by continent for host cities. For example the next two continents should be Africa and South America since neither has every hosted Worlds. Bids would then be submitted by South American countries for say the 2019 meet and African nations for 2021. A North American city could become the site for 2022, Asia in 2023, Europe in 2023 and Australia/Oceania in 2025. Then the meet takes on a truly international flavor. What better way to promote the sport globally than to rotate your championship around the world.


The World Championships should be the sport’s flagship event. Not a clone of Olympics, but the signature meet for the sport of track and field. I think these changes would start the process of not only setting this meet apart but giving it an identity as a one of sports best championship competitions.


  1. Agreed with one disagreement. Someone who qualifies as being in the top 20 in the world by say June would have gone through the fire. If they are injured at their Nationals and you require them to run, they can, by your proposals, walk the race and still qualify, by virtue of being in the Top 20.
    Since we want the best in the World, I would allow the 'Top 20' athlete to miss their Nationals, ONLY if passed unfit by a doctor from 'some approved Medic list'. This would allow an athlete to recover to compete at Worlds without risking major damage to self.

  2. I could agree with that .. Only caveat is that it would have to be watched for potential "abuse" and modified if that occurs .. I guess I'm beginning to age because I get skeptical when "medical excuses" become involved in this sport ..

  3. Outstanding recommendations!!!!!
    I especially like adding a World Championships, allowing the top 20 athletes on the yearly list, and using the order of the NCAA Championships.
    YOU should be running World Track and Field!!!!!
    John Nehmer
    Milwaukee, WI

  4. I think there needs to be some change, but you also need to look at this from an athlete's perspective. It may make more marketing sense to put world's at the end of the year, but will never happen because of the athletes. Athletes train to peak at world's and this leaves them in good shape that will allow them to run well after world's. If you make world's the last meet, you might miss out on some good PRs. Take this year's WR by Rudisha in Rieti (a race normally after worlds) or Tyson Gay's AR set last year in Shanghai in late September or Asafa Powell's PR then world record in Rieti.

    Also, for the distance races, they lose out on PRs since they peak for world's and the races are often tactical. Even those that manage to PR at worlds (like Dathan last year), often want more meets to try their hand at different distances while they are still hot (as Dathan did with his AR in the 5k in Zurich). There is no way to stop competitions from taking place after world's, and as long as athletes are in great shape at that time of year, meets will pay crop up offering them money to perform. Unlike the NFL, there isn't one group that regulates all competitions.

    Another issue is that picking the top 20 may make world's better, but it would definitely harm the US Championships. The drama would be sapped out since there would no longer be a need to place in the top 3, which is quite a competition in nearly every event.

    I like the other recommendations though.

  5. I appreciate where you are coming from on the peaking issue .. But I think that peaking wise, athletes will prepare to peak where they need to peak given that they know the target well ahead …

    For example, Kara Patterson peaked at nationals this year, was able to hold it for a while then had a fall off .. In subsequent interviews she said that she and her coach would adjust her training to hit her peak in Daegu .. That's what top level coaches and athletes do … Which is why we see "most" athletes hit their peaks in majors .. It's also why we see such a drop off in the top level athletes after majors ..

    In the two cases you mentioned, both were more a factor of "error" than in a planned late peak .. In Powell's case he has almost always run his best following a major … But then we know that he has never run to form in a major … In Gay's case injury played a role as he lost training mid season due to injury, which displaced his peak … Those things are going to happen no matter where the major lies … Things happen, particularly injuries and no manner of scheduling is going to change that …

    Marketing wise, I think the end of the season Worlds would be a tremendous boon .. Which "should" mean extra money for athletes .. Because if the sport is able to make more money that should mean better payouts to athletes … But that's another topic that needs discussing …

    Though I would be curious to hear what athletes and others like yourself have to say on the end of the season Worlds, so I think I will run a poll on the question …

    On the matter of distance runners, I think it is ridiculous that they let races at that level become tactical .. I guess I'm old school, but I believe in the "Pre" philosophy - you give it what you've got .. Because logic says that an inferior athlete is not going to beat a superior athlete by slowing down the pace … Not unless the superior athlete simply has NO kick whatsoever … Which has not been the case since the African nations have become a force above 800 meters …

    On the issue of adding the top 20 making the US Trials weaker, history tells me that that won't be the case … Here in California the "Sections" have a standard number of athletes that qualify for the State Championships (based on the size/population of the section) … For roughly a decade now there has been an added number based on how well the athletes perform in the State qualifying meet … Basically, if you reach a predetermined time (based on percentage calculations) you can run, jump or throw your way into the State championships even if you are not top 2 or 3 or whatever the standard number is in you section … No longer do you see athletes letting up once they realize they are not in the top number … Everyone competes to the end knowing there is still a possibility they may get in to state !!!

    I see the same thing happening in National championships all over the globe .. Because you have no idea what numbers others are putting up while you are competing !! So you not only run for the "automatic" qualifier, but for the opportunity to compete your way in by virtue of a top 20 time !! I could be wrong but I've seen it work at the high school level and I think the elite athletes have even more to compete for …

    As for no one body controlling meet structure … You are right and that is one of the things wrong with the sport .. It's a free for all without proper structure and that is one of the things killing it on the professional level … It's also why the athletes are being paid so disproportionately … Another pet peeve of mine …