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

Wrong Path for World Athletics

Feb 22nd, 2024
9:36 am PST

I’ve been observing the conversations this week regarding how World Athletics keeps attempting to change track and field. And two things have hit me. First thing is that WA really doesn’t understand the issues facing the sport and the athletes. Leadership is completely out of touch with its own sport. The second thing is that their view of “improvement” is to take the human element out of track and field!

The latest “suggestion” is to change the long jump. Create a jump zone to replace the take off board. Then use some type of laser system to measure from whatever point the jumper took off. That would require a very complicated system to catch the exact point of departure, then measure the exact landing point. How this will help the sport is anyone’s guess. WA says to make sure “every jump is measured”. As if you couldn’t measure a foul. Apparently they want every jump to be “legal”. That however, doesn’t improve the jumping itself. That’s a human thing. If it doesn’t help improve performance, how will it help increase popularity and viewership – which should be the goal right now.

Recently we’ve seen the use of “pacing lights” around tracks. Color coded to match various race paces. World record, meet record, whatever the desired winning time happens to be. Well, that’s why we insert humans to set the pace. That is already being done. The lights are cute, but humans can only do what humans do. They should not be looking down at the railing to see where they are. There are humans at split points to help them with that. So, clearly the lights are for fans. More often than not however, the pace is beyond the humans. Records are not the norm. So in most cases the lights are there to tell the fans how inferior the athletes are to current records. So tell me how these lights improve popularity and viewership.

Going back to the jumps, this past year WA began using another laser type device to determine the vertical plane of the take off board instead of using the plasticine of the takeoff board to measure fouls. Again, why? To create controversy where the plasticine says “good” but the laser says “no, by a humanly immeasurable amount”!

Then there’s the dreaded false start rule. Pressure sensitive starting blocks. Connected to computers. Not to measure if the athletes haave crossed the plane of the starting line before the gun has fired (the definition of a false start). Not even to say the athlete has left the block before the gun has gone off. But to say that there’s been a change of pressure on one of the pads used to push off from the blocks. Which is why in the majority of called false starts, no one is seen moving! But the blocks and computer detected a “pressure change”, so you my friend do not get to compete! Even though I’ve thought of a thousand reasons why pressure can change and the athlete has no perceptible movement. So, can anyone tell me how this debacle helps with anything? You take more time to read the computer. Allow the athlete to protest. He or she gets to look at the computer. Then they’re told to leave the area. Often someone that would’ve made a difference in the race. The race is restarted. Athletes are on edge. Meaning the final result most likely is slower than it should have been without the drama. Tell me how THIS has improved track and field!

As I look at the above, as well as other proposals, here is what struck me. That suddenly the leaders of the sport wan to do two things. Reduce the effect of humans in the sport. Hold athletes to inhuman standards. Both of which are just wrong to me.

Track and field is the most basic of sports. It’s why in high schools it has the highest participation numbers by far of any other sports. The top three sports for boys are football, basketball and track and field. For girls it’s track and field, volleyball and basketball. Our sport is simple. There are elements that fit every type of athlete. Speed, strength, athleticism, and others. Its easy to evaluate. You just time or measure, depending on the event. It’s here, in the measurement department, that WA wants to interfere with the process. For no reason other than to change things. Why, because they are failing at taking all of those high school boys and girls and keeping them as fans, like other sports do! And one of the big reasons, in my opinion, it’s that they keep trying to change it.

Look at other professional sports. They are who they are. The sport you watched in high school is the same sport you see when you turn on the TV or go to a stadium. Minor changes with time, but easy to understand. People like familiar!  They want to see the best athletes. Fans want to see the best competition. If you give the people those things, they will watch. Golf takes HOURS on TV, but fans watch all year long. Every weekend. Soccer is watched all day. Football has three sets of games on Sunday and fans flood bars, spend money, and watch all day. Basketball has multiple games all week.  Fans watch them all. Poker tournaments are huge. Folk will sit and watch other people play a card game for hours. Why? Because people love competition! And they will pay good hard earned money to watch THE BEST play and compete, at things they like and understand!

So, why not us? Well, they do – every four years! Every olympiad track and field sits at the core of the greatest sporting event on the planet – and people watch. That’s where names are made and heroes are born! The world fell in love with FloJo. Knew all about Ben Johnson. Followed Carl Lewis’ every move to see if he would be the next Jesse! Dan Obrien, the Olympics. Usain Bolt, the Olympics. Why the Olympics for us, and not the time in between? I’m my opinion it’s because of the guarantee. The same reason the NBA, NFL, and MLS are so freaking popular on a regular basis. Why the Super Bowl is annually the most watched event on television. It’s the guarantee. You’re guaranteed to see the best perform! THAT is what people want. To see the best. That’s why people love the PGA, they get to watch the best golfers. They get to watch them all day battle it out! They get to watch amazing putts, drives, strategy. People tuned in to the Super Bowl to see if Mahomes would rise to the occasion. They’ll sit and watch people throw darts at a board, if they are hitting the bullseye. The best doing something they understand! Something familiar.

It’s why they watch the California State track Championships. To see the best high schoolers go at i – standing room only! It’s why they’ll fill up the stadium for the US Track and field trials, because they know the best will be there. But you know what people hate? Things that do not make sense. Fans were upset when Devon Allen didn’t get to run against Grant Holloway. No one saw Devon move, no one. It didn’t make sense for him to be pulled from the track and sent away! Fans left angry and bewildered.

The two things that fans love most, track and field fails to give to them. The best athletes, and something they understand. When people “hear” how good Sydney McLaughlin is, they would like to see her. But they go to a meet and she isn’t there, because Sydney only runs a few times a year. They go to a meet and Noah is there but Fred and Trayvon aren’t. My point is this, the only guaranteed competitions in our sport are championship meets. The rare Prefontaine meet, gets a lot of talent. Nike (Uncle Phil) has deep pockets. As does whichever meet ends the season. Because it by default is the Diamond League championship. THIS is something WA needs to spend time and money on – getting more top athletes to attend competitions outside of Championship meets. I know, that’s tough. It’s why the sport keeps trying to tinker with events! But it needs to be done. Better marketing needs to be done. If people knew more about more athletes, you will build the knowledge that these athletes they do not currently know, are indeed elite! You see, fans also need to know who they are watching and why. It’s a part of being a fan. Finding your favorites and routing for them. That is part orne experience for sports fans. We have far too many elite athletes that no one knows anything about. IF they knew how good the athletes really are, that would give them the incentive to watch. If they only know a handful of names, they deem the rest to be irrelevant. That needs to change.

This is the path that WA needs to be on. It’s not about changing the way the events are. Electronics mean nothing to fans. They don’t care if the blocks are pressure sensitive. And they certainly don’t understand why athletes aren’t allowed to compete – come on man! They understand when a touchdown is scored; a basket is made ; or the bullseye was hit. THAT’S what fans want, simple. They just understand that you crossed the line first, so you won. Or you cleared the bar, or threw that thing further than everyone else. Fans want sports to Keep It Simple Stupid (KISS).

Our sport should be EASY to push. It’s one they already enjoy – once every four years. It’s one that many people participated in as youth, and our had family and friends that watched. We just have to give them that and high level athletes, or a reasonable facsimile, as often as possible. Which means providing them with more information as to how good so many of our athletes are. That’s what’s missing. Not a larger area to jump off of. It’s about WHO is jumping, not how we’re measuring. It’s who gets to race, not who you eliminate. It’s really that simple in my humble opinion. I wish WA would invest in THAT. Focus on that and they will come.

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