Though the focus of the Olympic world is on what will happen to Russia at Monday’s World Anti-Doping Agency meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland, there is considerable tumult in the track & field world over meets and money.
World Athletics (formerly known as the IAAF) has re-shaped its top-level Diamond League meets and shortened the broadcast time from two hours to 90 minutes. In doing so, it eliminated the 200 meters, Steeplechase, Triple Jump and Discus as primary events in the 14 meets, causing a considerable uproar among athletes in those events, and among others who were unimpressed by the rationale.
The result of this was a call for the formation of The Athletics Association, an organization designed to represent professional track & field athletes worldwide. This is much different than the Athletes Commission of World Athletics; in the announcement of the group, Olympic and World Champion Christian Taylor of the U.S. wrote, “We will fight for athletes’ rights and ultimately demand a seat at the table and a say in how our sport is run and how the sport can grow and evolve without ripping out its very core.”
In late November, World Athletics released – as promised – the schedule and prize money for a new, second-tier set of meets to be called the Continental Tour Gold level, with 10 meets and about 67% of the prize money for the relegated events compared to the Diamond League, and no final competition.
All of this is being done by World Athletics in an attempt to broaden the appeal of track & field as a spectator sport.
Taylor, in an insightful interview with Sieg Lindstrom of Track & Field News, said of the changes to the Diamond League format:
“It’s just for me a poor effort of this idea of growth—when you’re making the program shorter you’re actually essentially taking people out of the platform of the Diamond League. [World Athletics President Sebastian Coe and Chief Executive Jon Ridgeon] did understand our concerns, frustrations, and unfortunately things are locked in for the 2020 season but now efforts are all for 2021. Not just in getting the sport back to where it was, but how can we be more innovative, how can we be more creative. How can we start actually having a voice and influence as athletes in the direction that the sport is going in.”
This is a good time for this discussion, with the Olympic Games in Tokyo in 2020 and the 2021 World Championships to be held in the U.S. (Eugene) in 2021. But if one looks at the schedule of Diamond League and Continental Tour Gold events for 2020, the obvious conclusion is that this is a sport which can only be considered chaotic. The 23 meets now scheduled (Continental Tour meets are labeled “CT”; the others are Diamond League):
● April (1): 17 ~ Doha (QAT)
● May (7): 10 ~ Tokyo (JPN-CT); 13 ~ Nanjing (CHN-CT), 16 ~ Shanghai (CHN), 22 ~ Ostrava (CZE-CT), 24 ~ Stockholm (SWE), 28 ~ Rome (ITA), 31 ~ Rabat (MAR)
● June (6): 1 ~ Hengelo (NED-CT), 7 ~ Eugene (USA), 9 ~ Turku (FIN-CT), 11 ~ Oslo (NOR), 13 ~ Paris (FRA) and Kingston (JAM-CT)
● July (3): 4 ~ London (GBR), 7 ~ Szekesfehervar (HUN-CT), 10 ~ Monaco (MON)
● August (2): 16 ~ Gateshead (GBR), 20 ~ Lausanne (SUI)
● September (4): 4 ~ Brussels (BEL), 6 ~ Silesia (POL-CT), 11 ~ Zurich (SUI), 15 ~ Zagreb (CRO-CT)
So there is one early meet, then seven meets in 21 days in May and six meets in 13 days in June. Then nothing for three weeks, three meets in 10 days in July and nothing for five weeks, until mid-August. Plus four meets in 11 days in September.
(And, it must be pointed out, that one of the highest-attendance meets in the world is not part of either schedule: ISTAF in Berlin, which attracted 40,500 spectators in 2019 and will be held on 13 September in 2020. It says something about the Diamond League and Continental Tour that a 98-year-old meet held in a world capital has chosen not to participate.)
If you are in the sport, you know that the three weeks at the end of June are open to accommodate national championships and Olympic Trials, but the potential fan would only see a hole in the schedule.
Same for the blank spot for the last three weeks of July and first two weeks in August. That space is to accommodate the Tokyo Olympic Games, where the track & field events will be held from 31 July-8 August, with the men’s marathon on the 9th. Again, only true fans will realize this without a listing.
For Taylor and his associates who want to see interest in the sport expand, there are a lot of questions to ask about 2021 and beyond. What is not being discussed publicly so far, but is a constant topic of conversation amongst athletes, coaches and sometimes meet managers and promoters, is scheduling.
How many meets should there be? On what dates? How many events can individual athletes compete in over what period of time; this will not be the same for every event.
From a promotional standpoint, is there consideration of potentially attractive match-ups in the assignment of events to specific meets? What are the responsibility of athletes who are potential ticket sellers to be available to compete in these meets?
If this sounds like a boxing promoter trying to make matches that will sell tickets, it should. Interesting fights sell; Britain’s Anthony Joshua reportedly earned more than $70 million for his heavyweight title fight last Saturday vs. Mexico’s Andy Ruiz, Jr. That’s much more than the entire Diamond League is worth.
Taylor is right to get more athletes involved and he told Lindstrom that “With the understanding that we won’t agree on everything, but fundamentally we think [World Athletics] want to listen and work with us.”
To actually move the sport forward, however, bringing World Athletics and athletes together is only the start, with coaches, meet promoters and news media – at all levels – all needed in order to find the solution to growing the sport … and the ability for athletes to earn a livelihood in it.