LANE ONE: Athlete shrieking over dropped Diamond League events misses the point completely

Last Wednesday, the IAAF announced the 24 events that would be contested during the 2020 Diamond League season. The 12 events for both men and women included the “most popular” events according to the IAAF’s research, the 100 m, long jump and high jump, but dropped four events: 200 m, 3,000 m steeple, triple jump and discus.

The shrieking started immediately.

While popular, the 200 m was dropped because it would be too difficult to hold both the 100 and 200 m in multiple meets. But it will be included in 10 of the 15 meets (five for men, five for women) and the same for the Steeple. The triple jump and discus will only be part of two meets each: one meet for men and one meet for women for each event.

There will be additional opportunities for those events according to IAAF chief Sebastian Coe, “The Continental Tour, an enhanced global series of one-day meetings supporting the Diamond League, will integrate these eight disciplines to ensure athletes get opportunities to compete extensively and earn prize money. We will also work more closely with the athletes in these eight disciplines to help promote them and their events.”

While the Steeple wasn’t cut back entirely, 2017 World Champion Emma Coburn of the U.S. wasn’t happy:

She was polite as always, but the comments from the triple jump and discus community were less so. Four-time World Champion Christian Taylor of the U.S. announced the formation of a new group, The Athletics Association, independent of the IAAF:

Another group called Global Throwing, which includes a dozen of the world’s top discus throwers, nine of the event’s most notable coaches and a lot more, sent a well-constructed, must-read four-page letter to the IAAF. In pertinent part, the letter includes comments directed at Coe:

“Under your first term as president of the IAAF you have been preaching to federations and athletes alike, cooperation between all of us, so that we should work together for the good of the sport in developing Athletics as the number one Olympic Sport. We have been supportive of this need to cooperate as requested but we do not feel that you have been cooperating with us. We cannot believe that any athlete or coach in any event within the sport, agrees with the decisions taken yesterday. We believe that you and your staff are isolated in your own world trying to sell and please your paymasters rather than your own assets, namely your athletes and coaches. We have seen evidence that you are not even listening to your own Athletes Commission.”

It further insists that the change to a 90-minute television program window (vs. two hours up until now) will not be a panacea for the sport:

“You are focused on 90 minutes as the key determining factor for success for our sport like it is a football game. There is no evidence that 90 minutes is the answer and by choosing this as the key metric you are placing yourself in a box which has led to these unnecessary changes. …

“If nothing is allowed to take longer than 90 minutes, we would not have any Golf, Tennis, opera or theatre.”

All well and good. Of course, there is money involved; the pay scale for the Diamond League meets is well known; this past season, it paid $10,000-8,000-6,000-4,000-3,000-2,500-2,000-1,500-1,000 to the top eight placers and for the final, $50,000 down to $2,000 for the top eight.

No one knows what the “Continental Tour” is yet, how many meets there will be, what exposure it will have and what the pay scale will be.

But all of this misses the central issue that is driving the IAAF (soon to change its name to World Athletics) to make these changes, whether good or bad: making the sport more popular with the general public.

Coe identified this as his top priority in his election manifesto in 2015, but his first term was clouded with doping issues, the alleged criminal behavior of the Diacks and associated problems. He has said that these issues are not finished, but sufficiently under control that more attention can be paid to what the sport needs to be more successful.

It’s not well known, but the IAAF published its first-ever financial information in its application form for its newly-created Executive Board, mentioning that the organization has 90 full-time staff and annual revenue of about $40 million U.S.

This had never been revealed before. Assuming this is correct, then the IAAF ranks roughly ninth among the International Federations in terms of revenue for the last reported year (see our coverage from April 2018 here). Of course, FIFA is far and away the leader, but the others ahead of the IAAF in annual revenue include:

● $60-70 million (3): UCI (cycling), FIVB (volleyball), FINA (swimming)
● $50-60 million (3): ITF (tennis), FEI (equestrian), FIBA (basketball)
● $40-50 million (1): IRB (rugby), then the IAAF.

This is not where the worldwide federation for track & field needs to be and Coe and his team know this. The Global Throwing letter referenced Coe’s past comments that “something has to be done” to help track & field attract a wider audience.

Neither Taylor’s new Athletics Association concept and the Global Throwing letter accept this challenge, only protest against the way that the Diamond League presentation was changed so that it cuts them out.

The real question on the table is how to make track & field more popular. That’s the real issue.

For those athletes who say it’s not their problem, it is. Actors may not be responsible for the success or failure of a specific film or play, or singers of the sales of a specific album, but consider how heavily they are involved in the promotion of their films, plays and music.

Are track & field’s athletes that involved?

Taylor’s idea of having an energized group of athletes actively discussing how to promote the sport, broaden its reach and play a role in its renaissance would be fabulous. There are bright minds there and they are rarely tapped, not due to any conspiracy on the part of the IAAF, but because there is so little cohesion thanks to distances and training schedules (how many coaches will tolerate a star athlete missing multiple days of practice to attend a marketing meeting in a far-away country?).

Coburn, Taylor, the discus community and all the rest of those who are disgusted with the changes to the Diamond League program are welcome to their discontent. But the central problem to be solved is how to arrange the sport so that it grows as a commercial enterprise, as have the big team sports, tennis, golf, MMA and others over the past two decades.

That’s the issue, not the 90-minute television time window.

Rich Perelman

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