Hubert Lawrence | Be careful of changes, World Athletics
Change has been sweeping through track and field for two decades, but someone put a foot on the gas this year. Even though the sport is the centrepiece of the Olympic Games, it struggles for attention when the Games pass. So, no one can deny the rationale for change.
The IAAF eliminated the quarter-finals from the shorter Championship events at the turn of the century and waved a magic wand to shrink the long-distance events, too.
However, the most noticeable move came with two changes to the false-start rule. The last one was voted into being by World Athletics (formerly IAAF) in 2009 and left us with the zero tolerance false-start rule. Ironically, the first high-profile victim of the revised rule was Usain Bolt at the 2011 World Championships in Daegu.
For many, that vote made sense as a time-saving measure. Whether you agree with that presumption or not, it set the stage for a wave of change. At the Continental Cup, World Athletics has experimented with new field event formats, and last year, the Cup and the new Athletics World Cup had no running events longer than 3000 metres.
Therefore, when it was announced that the 5000m would be cut from the roster of Diamond League events, it was no surprise. Led by Ethiopian hero Haile Gebreselassie, distance-strong African nations complained but there was no groundswell. Now the wave of change has overrun the 200 metres, the 3000-metre steeplechase, the discus and the triple jump.
Sprint fans are shocked. A few years ago, when it became known that the 200m was among several events on the Olympic chopping block, the matter was swept away. Now, the proof of the pudding is on the table.
The field event athletes have got the short end of the stick. Often the 200-metre runner can contend in the 100m, even though specialists like 2017 World Champion Ramil ‘Rocket’ Guliyev of Turkey must be very sad right now. However, world-class discus throwers and triple jumpers seldom have a companion event. It’s no wonder that American Christian Taylor, the 2012 and 2016 Olympic triple jump champion, has emerged as the leader of the resistance.
In an interview with The Gleaner at the Carifta Games in Grand Cayman, World Athletics President Sebastian Coe assured that ‘universality’ – the presence of all traditional events at major championships – would be maintained. Still, there is a nagging worry that the demotion of the 200m, the 5000m, the steeple, the discus and the triple from the prestigious Diamond League will set an unstoppable sequence in motion. The worry is that eventually they could disappear from the World Championships and the Olympic Games altogether.
It’s probably wise to wait for a forthcoming announcement about a new league of meets that will feature those demoted disciplines. This new Continental Tour was mentioned when the Diamond League changes were announced, and full details are certain to arrive shortly. Hopefully, this new league will resolve all concerns.
Still the worry remains. With that quintet of events gone from the Diamond League, it may become hard for athletes and coaches in those disciplines to forge viable professional careers. Worse yet, a new generation may divert to other events and sports.
The worst-case scenario is that the wave of change will, in time, cherry-pick the events that are palatable, while eliminating the rest. Despite the assurances, no one can tell where the process will stop.
Hubert Lawrence has scrutinised local and international athletics since 1980.