How to perfect the world's great sports overnight
It seems like 2016 was so full of fairytale achievements in sport, we should just leave all their rules alone and be glad for the opportunity to witness history. This year, however, there is a chance to set some things right with several of our favourite sporting disciplines, helping them provide us with even more comfort and joy in years to come.
World Cup Football
Earth to FIFA: the colonies and outer reaches of the planet have heard of football and are playing at a very high level. Simply put, too many European teams (UEFA - 13 places) are given a berth to the World Cup. First developed in Europe, the sport claims a kind of colonial or territorial privilege in comparison to other regions, allowing only paltry numbers from the huge population centres represented by CAF (Africa - 5 places); CONCACAF (North America, Central American and the Caribbean - 3-1/2 places) and CONMEBOL (South America - 4-1/2 places).
The tournament still looks like a European championship with a few guest competitors sprinkled in from the other continents.
SOLUTION: Come up with a better way of evaluating federation teams, give each the spots they deserve and delete them from Europe, which should end up with a final tally of 8-10 after their teams duke it out with each other in an honest manner. Preliminary rounds at the finals will be instantly more exciting and spare us those Slovenia vs Slovakia snooze fests (with apologies to the two nations).
In its less-than-infinite wisdom, the International Table Tennis Federation decreed in 2001 that the century-old game of 21 points over three sets should now have a basis of five sets lasting 11 points each. Fewer points, went the logic, would create more drama (read: anxiety among athletes), making matches appear tighter and more competitive. But this drastic change caused two problems. By changing service rotation from five to two serves, players have no time to build a groove with their serve since they now must hand over the ball after two - hardly enough time to use it to build a rhythm or a streak. Serving is not irrelevant in the new regime; it's just not as crucial as shot making. Once a magical part of the game, the serve has become more perfunctory, and top players seem to just want to get it over with and get into the meat of the rally.
SOLUTION: Lengthen the game to 15 points a set with three serves each before a changeover. A player would be able to both probe and create setups with his serve or serve poorly and have it attacked directly if it's guileless. Either way, if you want drama, this is a much better compromise than cutting a sport in half.
Track and Field
In 2003, the IAAF ruled that it would tolerate a first false start in track events, then eject whosoever 'jumped the gun' in less than 0.10 on subsequent starts. The change led to a new problem: an athlete could commit the initial false start, later causing fast-starting rivals to freeze and lose their advantage at the gun. So in 2010, the ruling body for the sport changed the law to the current 'death penalty' situation in which every false starter is ejected. The thinking was that false starts waste precious television time while sponsors' wares wait for their chance to dance across our screens.
SOLUTION: Charge the first false start as a warning to the whole field. For any second false start, regardless of which athlete was charged, eject the offender and the original false starter (if different athletes). In this way, the initial transgressor has no chance of an unfair advantage by remaining in the race and making people twitchy.
While they are at it, the IAAF should change the pressure settings on the blocks for women's events. Apparently, women don's false start as much on average because they exert less pressure on the apparatus. But if they can be assumed to be just as nervous, inexperienced or tricky as men, but not as strong on average, then the change should result in similar false-start averages. Just saying.
And finally, let's fix lane identification. At the start of a race, competitors are expected to wear an adhesive lane number stuck to the outer thigh. That's the little white piece of material you see fluttering all over the track as soon as athletes leave the blocks. Some don't even bother putting the number on, but those who do, work hard to peel off the backing with their fingers, nails or teeth, and persevere, since the decals are actually meant to help officials identify everyone in a photo finish.
SOLUTION: Before a flying lane number puts somebody's eye out as runners go down the track, try preprinting them on rolls of kinesio tape in perforated rolls numbered 1-9 and higher, then affix as required. Using henna or permanent markers would work too, but my money's on the more modern, high-tech kinesio tape, the stuff everyone has stuck to their bodies anyway. After all, it's 2017.
Michael A. Grant is a communications consultant and author of several books, including 'The Power & The Glory: Jamaica in World Athletics from WWII to the Diamond League Era' (with Hubert Lawrence and Bryan Cummings); he is also an adjunct senior lecturer at UWI.