LANE ONE: The IAAF is changing track & field: computers are in, distance races are out

One of the great things about track & field is its simplicity.

Who threw the furthest? Who ran the fastest?

The technology to measure these events has gotten more and more precise, but the athlete’s goal is the same: get to the line first. Or jump higher or throw further than anyone else.

But who gets to run or jump or throw at the Olympic Games or World Championships is much harder to know now, thanks to changes by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) to a system that introduces its new “World Rankings” into the equation.

In short, what used to be a fairly clear delineation of who was in and who was not has been muddied. The IAAF’s announcement of the qualification standards for the 2020 Olympic Games last week showcase the issues that the IAAF is now trying to deal with.

Up through this year, there were entry standards for the Olympics and Worlds, and if an athlete met those standards, and were nominated by their national federation (often in a trials meet), they were entered.

That worked fine in a time of unlimited entries, but in the Olympic Games, those days are over.

The qualification documentation issued by the IAAF noted that the sport now has a hard quota of 1,900 total athletes for 2020. That’s a 16% haircut compared to the 2,268 athletes competing at the Rio Games in 2016, 368 athletes less. That’s a lot.

To deal with this, the IAAF changed its procedure from qualification by entry standards and then filling in from the list of yearly best marks of athletes who were eligible and not otherwise qualified. This is known in the trade as “filling the field” to meet the pre-determined number of entries in each event.

Now, the “filling the field” process will come from the World Rankings instead of the list of best marks during the qualification period. So, what are the World Rankings and how fair as they?

If you’re familiar with the rankings system used in golf and tennis, then you will recognize the IAAF World Rankings concept. It’s a points system, but with a specific adaptation for marks and for placement, designed to reward performances in higher-end meets.

If you read through the actual rankings criteria – don’t try this at night if you’re already in bed and ready to go to sleep – you will see that the points given for marks are according to the existing IAAF scoring tables and apply to all marks. The Rankings criteria have adjustments for the sprints and horizontal jumps for both headwinds and tailwinds.

It’s in the “placement” segment that the trouble begins. Points are awarded based on the place and the meet. So an Olympic or World Championships gold medal is worth 350 points; third place is worth 280 and eighth place earns 185 points.

The hierarchy of competitions goes down through the Diamond League Final, other IAAF World Championships, Diamond League meets and major Games (level A: including the Pan American Games), then to national championships (level B) and other events such as the NCAA Championships, classified as level C. And there are levels D, E and F.

For such a complex system, it’s amazingly unsophisticated, and clearly penalizes U.S. athletes and significant parts of the Jamaican, Kenyan and Ethiopian athlete base:

● The performance scores do not take altitude into consideration, and values a mark made at sea level – say Los Angeles – the same as if it were made in the thin air of Mexico City. This deeply impacts sprint and horizontal jump marks and penalizes the East African nations whose national championships and selection meets are at high altitude, penalizing their distance runners for slower marks in adverse conditions.

● The placement criteria are a real slap at the best athletes from the big athletics powers like the U.S., Jamaica, Kenya and Ethiopia. To award the same number of Rankings points for the USA Track & Field National Championships or the Olympic Trials and the – with no disrespect intended – national championships of Luxembourg is simply offensive.

● Moreover, to really be fair to athletes in these countries, a deeper valuation program is needed to reward individual events within larger championships. It’s insulting to value the NCAA Championships sprints and hurdles events – some of the best in the world each year – the same as second and third-tier events like the Mediterranean Games or Pan-Arab Games. Are you kidding?

Same for the sprints in the Jamaican national championships, surely worth more than the Pan American Games or an IAAF World Indoor Tour meeting. And there are many more examples.

Can we be surprised that the group who developed this process is from Europe, and not from the U.S. or Africa?

The system is up and running right now and the rankings are updated every Wednesday.

There is a lot more to using the World Rankings concept than simply “filling the field” for the Olympic Games, however. It is a tool for the IAAF to reach its own goals by:

(1) Encouraging athletes for competing in the IAAF Diamond League meets,
(2) So these meets can attract a larger in-stadium and television audience, and
(3) Lead to higher television rights fees and sponsorship agreements.

From that line of reasoning, it makes perfect sense. What does not compute, however, is that there is no prize money attached to World Ranking placements at the end of each calendar year.

If the Rankings are so important, why not?

The reaction to the IAAF’s World Rankings will be muted during much of 2019 as the sport examines the project and is able to evaluate it. But there are people with their hair on fire now as the IAAF has essentially declared the men’s and women’s 5,000 m “not safe for television” in the Diamond League starting in 2020.

Deciding that fast is better than slow, the Diamond League program for 2020 will complete the televised portion of meets in 90 minutes, shove as many field events into city-center venues and out of the main stadium as possible and limit running events to 3,000 m at most.

And the IAAF stated that the events program will be cut to 12 per gender, so which events are going to lose out? Right now, the Diamond League has 16 basic events for men and women:

Running (9): 100-200-400-800-1,500-5,000 m-Steeple-110 m hurdles-400 m hurdles
Field (7): High Jump-Pole Vault-Long Jump-Triple Jump-Shot Put-Discus-Javelin

Do we lose all the distance races? The discus and javelin? Triple jump?

The Vice President of the Ethiopian Athletics Federation, Gebreegziabher Gebremariam told reporters: “I had learned about the news of 5000 m’s exclusion from the Diamond League events with disbelief and I am still in great shock. I believe IAAF will revise its decision, since it is against the best interests of the athletes, specifically from the East African athletes’ perspective.”

More will be heard from East Africa, and from the American distance camps, including the U.S. Army’s World Class Athlete Program, home to Olympic medalist Paul Chelimo, among others.

IAAF President Sebastian Coe acknowledged that “Change is never easy,” but made it clear why the changes are being made, to give fans “a compelling reason to tune in and follow their stars over the next decade and beyond.” And that means distance races – if we take Coe at his word – are not compelling reasons for fans to watch the sport.


Rich Perelman