The CHill Zone of T&F: Conway's View From the Finish Line

How Do We Rank Track & Field’s Athletes?…

Dec 1st, 2012
9:01 am PDT

Me for Blog pic
As I said previously it’s that time of year – awards / ranking season. And as tends to happen, the first set of awards on the table have already stoked the fires of debate – and that’s a good thing. Can never have enough conversation about track and field!

So while we’re talking, I thought it might be a good time to define what we’re talking about. Rating performance(s) is sort of like having a conversation in a barbershop – everyone has an opinion. Opinions aside, however, there must be some general parameters that we can all come to agreement on.

For example, I think we can agree that great performances should be rewarded. In the world of “Rock, Paper, Scissors, Lizard, Spock”, however, I think that consistency is the biggest factor. Especially consistency at a high level – given the caveat that it’s against top level competition. I know that often people look at “undefeated”as being the equivalent of an outstanding season. But I would rather see an athlete compete against the best regularly and take a few losses while competing at a high level, than an athlete taking scalps against mid level competition.

I go back to the days of Steve Williams and Don Quarrie, when they ran against each other often and both suffered losses. But in the grand scheme of things they were the two best in the world regardless of how many more victories any other athlete may have had against lesser competition.

I have similar feelings about a single outstanding meet, or a single outstanding performance – even if that performance is a WR. I take the term Athlete of the Year to mean “all year”. Not early in the year; late in the year or, at the biggest meet of the year – and I know there are many that disagree. I understand that athletes aim their training to do their best at the Games or Worlds – I get that. They are rewarded with the medals and accolades they earn during and for that meet. But there will be several athletes that have outstanding performances in that meet, the next question is how do their SEASONS compare – at least in terms of yearly rankings.

Now that becomes a little more dicey when talking individual events, because the athletes being compared have more in common to refer to. In this case, the Major that year is more heavily weighted in my mind. In large part because it may be one of the few, if not the only, competition where the best actually get on the track at the same time to compete against each other. So that head to head may get weighted more. But even then, for my money, the athlete with the stronger overall season in terms of competition against high level athletes should be rewarded for that – strength of schedule if you will.

My point being is that I see ranking athletes as more complicated than “who was undefeated”, “who set a record”, and “who won the medals”. I want to know who you competed against and how well did they do? How was your whole season? After all if it’s just about one meet why do we hold the others? Every meet an athlete competes in he/she is rewarded for their efforts. Rankings should be about tabulating ALL of those efforts to say “Who Did The Best Job All Season”.

To that end I’ve tried to come up with a rubric – a “Rock, Paper Scissors, Lizard, Spock” if you will – that addresses the various elements that can occur over a season. I’m sure there will be discussion, and have at it. The point of this whole discussion is to figure out how we should be ranking the sport. Personally I think the health of the sport depends on it. Because as long as we the fans, and those that distribute the money put total emphasis on single meets, single performances, and empty wins we in essence promote the lack of head to head competition that permeates this sport! A situation we all complain about! So here is what I try to look at when comparing athlete’s seasons.

Ranking Rubric

** Consistent Season plus Outstanding Performance plus Undefeated plus WR
** Consistent Season plus Undefeated plus WR
** Consistent Season plus Outstanding Performance plus Undefeated
** Consistent Season plus Undefeated
** Consistent Season plus WR
** Consistent Season plus Outstanding Performance
** Consistent Season
** Undefeated Season
** Outstanding Performances

Take note that the term Outstanding Performance is singular. And that the term Consistent Season means at a solid to high level. Running 1:45 in the 800 meet after meet is consistent, but is not going to gain you a high ranking if others are constantly running 1:43/1:44. So the rubric needs to be applied with a sense of logical progression in terms of the performances that are established. It’s simply a framework against which I think performances should be compared.

That said let’s discuss. I’m looking back on the season now and looking to put together some Top Five lists. I thought about -Top Ten, and may depending on what you all think, but in general once you get past the top five athletes comparison in most events gets fuzzy. Personally I’d love to see it get fuzzy among the top five, because that would mean that the top athletes are on the track against each other often. I think we can accomplish that in part by letting them know that their efforts are rewarded even when they take a loss or two as long as it’s truly in the heart of battle.

8 Responses to “How Do We Rank Track & Field’s Athletes?”

  1. Skydance7 says:

    Setting the parameters is good and I generally agree with yours.

    We always had this dilemma in high school sports with “Player of the Year” and “Most Valuable Player”—two different animals.

    Although you mention “strength of schedule” (which in my opinion is very important) I personally would spell it out more specifically in the rubric.

    Glad you threw this explanation into your series.

    • CHill says:

      I agree about the difference between Player of the Year and Most Valuable Player – totally different animals and easy to confuse …

      I thought about trying to put “strength of schedule” into the rubric, buy it really should permeate the entire rubric .. In essence its art every level … Strength of Schedule being the tie breaker if you will in every situation ….

  2. Anderson says:

    The problem occurs when you start comparing different events. Does a 1-2 sprinter get more points than a decathlete or hammer thrower because they have 2 events?
    Also how do you rate an outstanding performance? Its much harder for a womens Shot putter to come close to a world record than a 100m runner. Or a mens long jumper to a 100m runner.
    And a consistent season for a multi eventer or 10k runner has to be rated differently than that of a shot putter who can compete all the time.

    • CHill says:

      Oh I agree that there are still difficulties…

      I think “doublers” do have more opportunities, both for success and failure .. So for me I think I do reward the success of those that double a bit more than those that don’t – risk/reward .. but that goes for 800/1500, 1500/5000, 5000/10000, LJ/TJ, or any type of double …

      Outstanding performance … I try to look past the obviously aided performances on the women’s side … More at what had been fine outside of certain period of time … But that’s another conversation I want to have – just how much did had there been in the party and what should we expect from athletes today ..

      But back to ranking athletes … For those events where the performances are “legit”then I compare against established grid … For example there men’s long jumpers are not performing anywhere near the established standards … There have been a handful of 29 foot jumpers in history and several iffy 28′ 6” … These guys barely going over 27 ft aren’t cutting it .. Doesn’t matter to me that they are doing it as a group … The performances are not outstanding …

      The hardest for me are the multi events and longer distances .. A couple of competitions s year is tough to gauge unless you are just outstanding each time like Eaton .. And the show tactical distance traces hurt when you only do say three on the year .. I actually find it easier to rate marathoners because they go pretty much all out each time …

      • Anderson says:

        That’s the preoblem with ranking athletes fairly. SAFP will automatically get extra points over Perkovic because of doubling.

        And I don’t think the all time make should be as relevant in ranking for the year. If an athlete is completely dominant against the bst competition that year they should get thoes points. They shouldn’t be penalized if they are not as good as someone in the 80s/90s

        • CHill says:

          SAFP is taking the extra risk of loss by competing in a secondary event … Percovic (this being the example and not picking on her) is able to focus preparation and competition in one area .. SAFP must be prepared to compete in two different (though similar) events as well as two different groups of competitors !!! If one is successful at doing that I think it deserves rewarding ..

          As for comparing against the best, I think that is the nature of the sport. If you are competing in a “down” event, does that mean that you should compete down to the level of the completion, or excel and bring others up ??

          • Anderson says:

            That’s a good point I overlooked, that a single event athlete has more time to focus on that event.

          • CHill says:

            I think that most people overlook that .. As well as the complexity of doubling … Most people assume that the 100 and 200 are the same event .. Yet at every level (HS, college, elite) only a handful of people excel at both .. Most excel at only one or the other …

            And the 200/400 double requires almost two totally different set of skills …And so on up the ladder .. the jumps and throws are even more difficult to excel at more than one at a time …

            Doubling is difficult …

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