It’s Time to Get Rid of the Down Year in Track

A topic that often comes up in my conversations with other track people is the “down year” that occurs every fourth year, in which no World or Olympic championship takes place. Why, we ask, is there not a world championship meet every year? That topic has come up more often recently because, for better or for worse, 2010 is one of those down years. This article will argue that the down year should be eliminated, and that the World Championships (or Olympics) should be the last meet of every outdoor season.

First, a little history: there wasn’t a world championship meet at all until 1983. Until then, the only time that the world’s best in the sport gathered together to compete in the same place at the same time was during the Olympic Games. Yes, there were smaller meets like the Pan-Am Games, USA vs. USSR, etc., but no meet that involved worldwide participation. Back in the 1980’s, the World Championships were held every four years, which meant there were two years in a row of having a major world meet, and two years in a row of no such meet. Then, in 1993, another World Championships was added, and that’s when things became the way they are now: A World Championship year (2007), an Olympic year (2008), another World Championship year (2009), then a down year 2010).

So, if it took only ten years to add a second world championship meet in every four-year cycle, why is it taking so long to add a third? Track is the only sport I know of that doesn’t have some way of determining who its world champions are every year. In tennis, there’s always a Wimbledon. In golf, there’s always a Master’s. In professional football, there’s always a Super Bowl.  Soccer, swimming, baseball,  basketball, hockey – they all have a champion. So what’s up with track?

The World (or Olympic) champion in each particular event should be considered the “champion” of that event for that particular year. In other words, the outdoor season should culminate with the World Championships. It should be the last meet of the year. To me, to have more meets after the world championships is like playing more games after the Super Bowl. You’ve already determined who the best is, yet you’re still running races. I understand that there’s a financial aspect involved for meet promoters, advertisers, and athletes as well, but it just seems to defy common sense to continue racing after the world champion has been determined. If the world championships were the last meet of the year, and the rest of the season built up to it, then the meet would be of greater magnitude. If it meant moving the World Championships back to September in order to move some of the later meets up to August, I’d be okay with that. And I don’t think it would be too hard for athletes to adapt their training and racing schedules accordingly.

The basic point I’m making here is that there should be a crowned world champion every year. Not a “paper” champion based on rankings. Rankings may be relevant for determining a pay scale, etc. But the world champion should be able to say that he or she is the best.

Of course, every solution creates new problems. In this case, if there were a world championship meet every year, and that meet served as the sole determining factor in deciding who was the world’s best in that event, then it would become essential that the best athletes in each event have the chance to compete at worlds, regardless of which country they represent. For example, if the United States has seven of the ten best hurdlers in the world, then they should be able to send all seven to the World Championships, not just the top three.

An analogy would be the NCAA college basketball tournament. Conferences like the ACC, Big East, and others with great traditions have sent as many as six teams to the tournament, and there have been years when two or even three of the Final Four teams have come from the same conference. What would be wrong with having a similar scenario in track? If five of the eight finalists in the men’s 100m dash were Jamaican, I’d be okay with that. If all the finalists in the 5,000 meters were either Kenyan or Ethiopian, I’d be okay with that. I can’t see how a final that includes the best the world has to offer can do anything to hurt the sport. And I don’t think a watered-down final does anything to help it.

Another problem is the question of, How do you determine which athletes deserve a world championship bid and which ones don’t. Can you go strictly by best times? If so, then what about wind factors and other weather factors that affect times? Can you go by a combination of times and places? But what if someone is injured for a good chunk of the season, comes back and runs really well, but hasn’t run enough races to be considered for entry? How cut and dry, how black and white, should the standards be? These are questions that I feel could be answered satisfactorily. Not everybody is 100% happy with the NCAA selection process for its basketball tournament, nor with the BCS system in college football, but we’d all have to agree that those means of determining the national champion have been effective overall. I think track could do something similar.

A World Championship every year, that culminates the season with a crowned champion in each event, would bring much energy to the sport. Fans would be interested in seeing which athletes qualify for the meet and how they do once they get there. Performances would be memorable because they would come on the sport’s biggest stage. The thrill for fans would come from seeing the best compete against the best, not in seeing them chase after records that are becoming increasingly impossible to catch. Perhaps even casual sports fans who don’t follow track closely would tune in to find out who does what when everything is on the line, just like the casual sports fan tunes in for Wimbledon, the Master’s, etc.

It would help track if the casual fan were to know who the big names are. The casual fan should know who the big names are. I’d guess that if you asked casual fans to name as many track stars as they could, they wouldn’t get beyond Usain Bolt, and maybe Tyson Gay. The casual sports fan doesn’t know Sanya Richards or Jeremy Wariner or Kerron Clement or Lashawn Merritt or Allyson Felix or Bershawn Jackson, even though all of them have been World or Olympic champions.

So, yes, the time has come to get rid of the down year, to give the top athletes a tangible goal to strive toward every year. It would only make sense.

© 2010 Steve McGill

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