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

Time for a Worlds Revision

Oct 4th, 2023
2:51 pm PDT

The World Championships have concluded and everyone is already looking forward to Paris 2024! Because that is the event that EVERYONE puts stock into. So much so, that several high level athletes bypassed this year’s World Championships in favor of preparation for the Olympics. You see, in the days leading up to Worlds, much of the buzz was not about the impending matchups but discussions about who wasn’t going to compete. As many of the world’s top athletes declared out of Budapest for various reasons. There were those that were out due to suspensions. Primarily from the Athletes Integrity Unit, for either whereabouts violations or use of prohibited substances. This list included former pole vault gold medalist Thiago Braz (use of a prohibited substance); hurdle WR holder Tobi Amusan (whereabouts failure); and high school sprint records setter Issam Assinga (use of a prohibited substance). Though at the last minute Ms Amusan received clearance to compete. There were others however, that bowed out due to various levels of injuries and preparedness. With the explanation that they were focusing on being ready for next year’s Olympics in Paris! This list included athletes like Kelvin Kiptum (#2 all time marathon), Sydney McLaughlin (WR holder 400H), Athing Mu (AR holder 800m) and Michael Norman (defending champion 400m) among others. Note that Athing finally chose to compete. Both “lists” are disturbing, for different reasons. The list of suspensions tells us that we still have issues in the sport regarding performance enhancement. Issues that may not be as clear cut as the average person might think. Missing tests, while a violation, doesn’t mean that athletes aren’t being tested, or are “dirty”. Yet these missed tests do reflect negatively on the sport. Just as actual negative tests give the general public a poor view of athletics. And the fact that we’re constantly discussing these matters, may not be the best thing overall for track and field. Especially when you look at how little the issue of drug use is raised in other sports. As uncomfortable as this topic can be, I do believe that it needs reviewing by the powers that be in athletics in my humble opinion!

While the first list has an effect on public perception of the sport, I view the second list as even more important. Because this list reflects the perception of those within the sport towards our own World Championships – ostensibly the pinnacle of competition in athletics! That perception has been made clear – in our sport NOTHING trumps the Olympics. Not even the World Championships! THAT to me is what’s most concerning. Now, I’m old enough to remember the very first Worlds in 1983. To be honest, I was both excited and disappointed. Excited that the sport was finally going to have a global championship. We were finally going to get a stage to showcase OUR best athletes, and settle the question of “who’s the best” – sort of. Unfortunately what we did however, was simply copy the Olympics! Same format, all the way down to making it every four years! Then we set it the year before the Olympics making the World Championships ┬áthe warm up act for the Games! It was my feeling at the time that we were setting ourselves up to be the little brother of the Olympics – and that is exactly what the World Championships have become! Yes, a decade in, we added a second meet in the “Olympic cycle” (1993). Making Worlds an every other year event. But that just made us the lead in and follow up, to the world’s largest sporting spectacle. Still the same meet. Still second fiddle to the grandeur that is the Olympics. And more importantly in my opinion, not a true championship!

I will address the problem with mirroring the Games shortly. First I’d like to point out another “problem” with the World Championships. Actually two additional problems. One is that Worlds is not the final meet of the season. We crown our “champions”, then ask everyone to continue competing. Why? Because we have created the Diamond League. A series of meets that World Athletics has attempted to elevate in importance to the level of the World Championships. As competition in the Diamond League is at the heart of the World Athletics ranking system. Which is used to determine qualification for the World Championships, outside of actual qualification via qualifying standards. If this sounds convoluted, that’s because it is. It gets better however, as the Diamond League has its own “championship meet”. At which time its winners are given passage (bye) to the World Championships! Equating winning the Diamond League to winning the World Championships. As the winners at Worlds are given passage (bye) to the next World Championships. So instead it’s THIS meet – the Diamond League Final – that serves as the end of our track season – a problem in my humble opinion! A problem that we have two different championships in the same season literally within weeks of each other. A problem that they’re given equal consideration when it comes to Worlds competition. And a problem that a meet that does not consist of the best of our athletes, completes the season AND names champions! Yet we want new fans to start following our sport!

This mess needs to be cleaned up. Thank to Noah Lyles, our sport has been in what I’ll call, open discussion, with the NBA over what constitutes a World Champion. As we complete said championship, then ask our best athletes to keep competing to name “more champions”! Umm, when the NBA, NFL, MLB, MLH finish their Championships everybody goes home and rests until the start of next season. A championship is supposed to pull out the best you have to give. There should be no reason to continue when it’s over. So let’s begin by relegating the Diamond League to, lesser than World Championships status. Like, point accumulation that is deemed necessary to determine rankings and prize distribution, but no “championship” meet. Simple enough to add points and award prize money accordingly. This talley can take place at the conclusion of the league, which should take place prior to the World Championships! You could even have a banquet of some sort to do so. Perhaps during a two week “down” period between the end of the Diamond League and the World Championships. Yes, I know this may require some meets to adjust their schedules. But it can be done.

Now that we’ve decided to end the year with our signature World Championships. Let’s take a look at what this will look like. Let’s start by divorcing ourselves from the Olympic format. One, we need to stop getting compared to the Olympics. Two, the Olympics are NOT a championship. That’s because the Olympics were designed to be a “participation” competition – not really a championship competition. The purpose of the modern Olympics was to gather the world together in peaceful competition! Yes, the winners of those competing are called Olympic Champions – mirroring the name of the competition. But the Games were not created to determine global champions. Every nation on the planet gets to send competitors, regardless of how good they are. Meanwhile many of the world’s best are left at home, because there is a limit of 3 athletes per country that are allowed to represent each nation. Remember, this is a “festival” of sports. Not a championship. It is this structure that track and field adopted as it’s “championship” structure back in 1983! And it’s this structure that has made us second class citizens to the Olympic Games. We can’t out Olympic the Olympics, because we are a single sport attempting to compete against the grandeur that is the Olympics, with it’s multitude of sports! That stage has millions more eyes on it than our stage – as big brothers typically have over little brothers. So, as little brothers have to do to become their own person. It’s time for us to go our own way. Which in my opinion means developing a true global championship that actually has meaning!

What does that look like? Well I have some ideas. Starting with having a championship every year. Professional sports determine champions yearly – not sometimes! That means in Olympic years as well. I know that that idea is going to be tough for some. But sports like basketball and baseball participate in both their own Championships and the Olympics. They send lesser athletes to the Olympics. We can do the same.. Just as we do with meets like the Pan Am Games, European Championships, and Asian Games, for example. Prioritizing our own Global Championships! I’m sure there are many saying, why can’t we just substitute the Olympics for our championship meet in Olympic years? My answer is, because we’re going to change who participates in our championships! We’re going to move from a participation meet to a championship meet. Meaning only the best will be invited – ie everyone doesn’t get an entry! My thought is this. Forget the byes. EVERYONE earns their way each year. Dump the world rankings as a means of qualification. It’s much too flawed. Entry of 32 individuals per event, based on the current year’s (calendar year) performances. Average of top three marks in the calendar year. With a cutoff 45 days prior to the championship. Marks can be made in any meet sanctioned by a national governing body. There will be a cap of 8 athletes (25% of a field) for any individual nation. By the way, the three mark average is to prevent the outlier performance from getting an individual into the meet. Also, 32 relay teams will be invited. I’m dropping the mixed relay and adding the DMR. My way of increasing national participation overall without diluting the meet. I would dictate that relay squads must be made up of individuals that competed in one’s national championships. To encourage national participation, not discourage it.

The idea here is to create an event where the cream of the crop go head to head. Leaving the Olympics as the participation event and turning our annual gathering into a true championship! Finally elevating Worlds as the meet where the best of the best compete! This will make our winners true world champions because they beat the absolute best in the world. You don’t get to sit on your arse and just show up and compete one time. You have to earn your way, this year, to be at the party. You had to compete. And if, by mark, you are among the top ten in the world, you go! No more being a top five or six in the world and watching on television. Creating a meet that fans will be compelled to watch. Therefore advertisers will want to spend their money! THIS is what our sport needs. It’s time for little brother to show that he is every bit as good as big brother. Frankly, better in his own sphere.

These are my thoughts. The framework/basic structure to take the World Championships to a higher level. It’s time for the sport to take some steps forward. Athletics needs to make it’s own way. Ironically, in August of this year, Seb Coe stated that he believes there is room in 2026 for what he called a, “Best of the Best” event! Which makes me believe that he too sees the need for something more in the sport. Putting the best that we have in the spotlight can only be a good thing. As good as the World Championships is it’s not yet at the level of the Super Bowl or World Series. It’s not yet, must see TV. It’s time to become, must see TV. When we get the best that we have to offer going head to head. We will be just that.

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