June 20, 2013
There is no shortage of opinions here in Des Moines as the curtain is about to go up for 2013 USA Outdoor Track & Field Championships. Our fans - an analytical bunch - exhibit little hesitation in speaking out about virtually any aspect of our sport. Whether you're relaxing in the stands, enjoying barbecue at Jethro's, sampling exquisite micro-brew at the Raccoon River Brewing Co., or hoisting a glass boot of lager at the Hessan Haus, this week in Des Moines you will be sure to bump into any number of the sport's faithful who will gladly speak out about a variety of track & field topics. Here is some of the chatter:
WC Wild Card Qualifiers. Even before this week's competition begins here in Iowa, the USA has 14 individuals who are automatically qualified to compete in this August's World Championships in Moscow. Most of those qualifiers - as has recently been the case - gained special entry based upon their status as defending world champions. But - new this year - last year's Diamond League champions also are in. The IAAF has added a proviso: when a country has both a defending champion and the Diamond League champ in the same event - as does the US in the 110H with defending champ Jason Richardson and reigning DL king Aries Merritt - the country must choose between them. Richardson was selected, leaving Merritt needing to qualify here later this week. Many believe the better approach in the rare instances where two different athletes from the same country are the reigning WC winner and the DL champion would be to extend automatic entry to both athletes. While the situation will arise only infrequently, it makes no sense to withhold an otherwise-automatic entry to one unfortunate athlete simply because one of his or her accomplished countrymen holds the other title. You want to ensure that both pinnacle athletes compete in the World Championships.
WC Wild Card Qualifying Participation. While the privilege of assured WC entry is generally viewed as an appropriate honor to be accorded to a reigning world or DL champion, you can easily evoke animated discussion among track aficionados about what should be the appropriate level of participation by these champion WC entrants at their nation's qualifying meet. For such US champs, the USATF currently requires only that such athletes compete in the Nationals - which can be fulfilled by a first round appearance only and even in another event! It begs several questions. Are champion athletes truly encumbered or disadvantaged in any meaningful way by having to compete earnestly in their championship event six weeks prior to the WC meet? And do we lift up or burden our sport when - as was the case in 2009 - we enable a beloved, effervescent, and visible track & field ambassador like Bernard Lagat - then the reigning WC champion in the 1500 and the 5000 - to run a single round in the USATF 800, slide out of town, and leave a capacity crowd at Hayward Field - and a significantly-larger broadcast audience - hungry for more? Make no mistake, the athlete in this privileged position who takes the easier road offered cannot be fairly blamed here. And while there are varying views on this, many believe the current requirement should be amended to ensure these champions - the stars of our sport who are already assured entry into the world championships regardless of their performance in their country's qualifying meet - perform in earnest in these well-attended and widely-broadcast championships.
Qualifying Standards. You won't find many who quarrel with the use of qualifying standards - they serve a useful purpose in ensuring top flight competitions among the most accomplished athletes. But you'll find many more who favor a simplification of the current "A" / "B" system which regrettably injects an inexplicable facet of complexity into the sport. Under the current intricate system, when a great upset occurs - the inevitable moment we as fans savor - the sport is often robbed of the joy of spontaneous celebration as a scurried search ensues to determine if a lower-finishing "A" qualifier - already defeated in the race that supposedly determines championship participation - might truly unseat the giant-killing "B" qualifier who prevailed when it was supposed to count the most. Or - nearly as unsettling - might that prevailing - and overachieving - "B" performer be given the opportunity to "chase" an "A" standard mark - leaving most in the sport to wonder about the finality of qualifying championship races. Some have offered this as a better approach: don't eliminate standards, but "soften" selected "A" standards to promote a greater proliferation of athletes who possess the superior qualifying mark. To do so would promote more pure racing in the national championship / qualifying races. It would help constrain drama-less competitions where a cadre of "A" standard qualifiers purposefully promote a dawdling race tempo to ensure the competition falls below "A" quality standards - thus diminishing - or even eliminating - the importance that an upset win at a national championship should mean. With a proliferation of "A" standard competitors and less competitors shunted to second class status, it would go a long way toward eliminating the "A" / "B" quandary and actually restore the national qualifying meets with meaningful and exciting competitions. And wouldn't that be good for the sport?
The False Start Rule. It doesn't take much to strike up a conversation about the false start rule. You'll have a tough time finding someone who has no opinion about the current version which sends any athlete who jumps the gun to the sidelines on the first infraction. The discussions generally focus upon: (i) the wisdom of the one-and-done rule; and (ii) the apparent lack of consistency in the rule's application. Proponents of the current rule cite how it enhances meet and broadcast continuity and eliminates false start games playing. Defenders of the current rule also point to how NCAA athletes - who have performed under this same rule for many years - have adjusted to its application. Critics note the rule's emerging - and frankly disturbing - often-uneven application - with kindly officials, flashing green cards, benevolently waiving off clear violations (e.g. Henry Lelei's clear false start in this year's NCAA steeple final). There are legions of passionate track followers on both sides of this issue which - in the final analysis - may be a debate that never ends.
Discussions on these issues - and others - are taking place here at every turn. The spirited exchange of viewpoints and ideas is an important element of the overall fan experience while taking in a long weekend of championship competition. And the spice of these impassioned dialogues is the differing slants offered. To water down an old maxim, opinions are like asses: everybody's got one. And - like asses - not everyone's is the same. But amid all the conflicting points of view - and especially during this weekend, to be sure - there is a singular, observable characteristic that nonetheless unites all who follow our sport. It is a shared, omnipresent passion for track & field. Dave Hunter