An alternative qualifying system for the world champs

20 Aug 2015

The US trials is one of the best meets of the season so far. Perhaps not a surprise when some of the world’s best talent was busting a gut just to get on the team. The US’s cut throat approach, much admired in some quarters, does mean however that world-class athletes such as McCorory, Richardson and Stowers will not be competing as individuals in Beijing. This is to the championship’s detriment, but it makes the US national trials essential viewing.

Britain’s uncommitted approach to its trials means that it lacks the spectacle of its US counterpart. Besides British Athletics go away and pick a team based on some fuzzy criteria. (Is there any other nation that would only guarantee an athlete a place on the team from a top two finish and two qualifying standards?) The result is athletes are left helpless trying to grasp just what they can do to be selected. The omissions of Andy Vernon and Lennie Waite seem not only incorrect, but unnecessary.

Is there an alternative? Could the system be flipped on its head? The IAAF has a target number of athletes for most events. Why not use this to take athletes ranked within this target? It would have the clean-cut approach of the US system, but also take the sting out of qualification hanging on a single day. It would also give athletes a clear qualification criteria. The obvious problem with this would be that some countries would be over represented, while others risk not being represented at all—compromising the idea of a “world” championship. Then again, the football world cup doesn’t have all the nations; qualifying sifts most of them out.

The most stark picture would be in the sprints (100m, 200m, 400m). Put simply, it’s the US and everyone else. Here would be the top three countries with the most qualifiers in the sprints as it stands for the men:


And the dominance gets even stronger for the US when you consider qualifiers in the women’s sprints:


The biggest gulf is in the 200m for both men and the women. As it stands, in the women’s 200m, the US would take 33 of the places (around 57% of the total), with Jamaica well behind with 7 (12%). It’s similar in the men’s event with the US with 24 (46%) and Jamaica on 5 (around 10%).

In the middle distances Kenya take the initiative in the men’s (taking 31 of the 800m and 1500m places against the USA’s 15), but once again its the US which is dominant in the 800m and 1500m (taking 26 spots, Kenya 9 and Great Britain with 7).

This is enough to put off most federations from agreeing to this criteria. But it would it would create a competition—in an objective way—of the best athletes in the world. Yes, federations can have wild cards for developing athletes or those coming back from injury, but these would be the minority. It would also open up the opportunity for athletes to take control from national federations; they wouldn’t have to sign sponsorship agreements and, hell, in this scenario, athletes could wear their sponsor’s kit.

With profile opportunities like this, maybe brands would start directing more money to individual athletes (as seen in tennis). The sense of nationhood would be weakened, but even national federations are abandoning country flags in favour of corporate logos. Athletes famously struggle to make money from the Olympics, where the concept of nationhood will remain robust, but perhaps the IAAF could throw a bone to athletes and allow them to take control of both their qualifying and their commercial value.

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