WHY THE PROPOSED IAAF WORLD RANKINGS NEVER CAN BE A FAIR TOOL FOR DETERMINING CHAMPIONSHIP ENTRIES, PART 2: THE REALITY, by A. Lennart Julin

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This two part piece may prove to be somewhat controversial. A. Lennart Julin is a long time key observer of athletics. We have met and spoke at many of the European and IAAF Championship meets. A. Lennart Julin was very concerned about how the new IAAF World Rankings would work for the sport. This is part 2, The Reality.

StadiumFE1-London17.jpg2017 London World Championships, photo by PhotoRun.net

WHY THE PROPOSED IAAF WORLD RANKINGS NEVER CAN BE A FAIR TOOL FOR DETERMINING CHAMPIONSHIP ENTRIES

PART 2: THE REALITY

Before a ranking system is implemented it is absolutely crucial that its "operating mechanics" is carefully analysed and understood. Something that might look quite good at the first glance can turn out very diffferently when you delve into the details by applying it to the real results of the real athletes in real competitions.

To illustrate "the mechanics" of the proposed ranking system a closer look is taken at one event - men's Discus Throw - and the situation there as of 2 April 2018.

The top-10 looked like this

1 Daniel Ståhl 1400

2 Andrius Gudzius 1392

3 Fedrick Dacres 1378

4 Philip Milanov 1316

5 Piotr Malachowski 1309

6 Robert Harting 1290

7 Robert Urbanek 1279

8 Mason Finley 1277

9 Christoph Harting 1219

10 Traves Smikle 1209

What is immediately striking here is the rapid drop-off in the scores: 91 points from 1st to 5th and another 100 points from 5th to 10th. But then it slows with just 66 points from 10th to 25th followed by 44, 45 and 27 points for each further step of 25 downwards.

We can compare that pattern to that of the traditional year list (% = percentage of top mark) for 2017

Place Ranking score Drop % Seasonal best Drop %

1 1400 - - 71.29 - -

25 1143 257 18.4 65.00 6.29 8.8

50 1099 44 3.1 62.61 2.39 3.3

75 1054 45 3.2 61.52 1.09 1.5

100 1027 27 1.9 60.31 1.21 1.7

It is obvious that the ranking severely inflates the differences especially at the top and that has a very simple explanation: The really significant bonus scores outside of the World Championships were handed out at the - only five - Diamond League meets and those bonuses were unattainable for all but a very select few as the overwhelming majority never even got the chance to participate in the DL.

There were a total of 5845 bonus points theoretically available a the DL meets - of those no less than 3660 (62.6 %) were claimed by just five (5!) throwers and the top-9 claimed 5205 (89 %!!) The remaining 11% were split up between six throwers that each got to compete just once. All in all only 16 throwers took part in the men's Discus at the 2017 Diamond League series as four meet organisers had fields of eight and the fifth allowed nine competitors.

How significant this "unattainability" of bonus points is can be illustrated by the fact that the score for an 8th place is 100 points which corresponds to no less than 5½ meters in distance!!! So finishing 8th (and last) in a DL meet at 59 meters is worth approximately the same as throwing 64 meters in a no-name meet.

When 69 metres equals 88 meters

Other examples: A DL win in 64.04 m gives the same total score as being one centimeter off the 74.08 World record in a local meet. And the winning 69.21 in London World Championships last summer corresponds in point value to throwing 88 (!!!) meters in a small local meet!

If you finish 9th in a Diamond League you get no bonus at all no matter how far you throw. The bonus gap between 7th and 8th place in a DL meet is 10 points while the gap between 8th and 9th place is 100 points, i.e. ten times larger. Actually the point gap between No 1 and No 8 is the same as between No 8 and No 9! This is completely contraintuitive to what it logically should be!

For athletes not being famous enough - or having sufficiently influential managers - to get into the DL meets there are no similar bonus scoring possibilities availabe. This is in no way a situation pertaining only to the Discus Throw, actually just eight competitors is the standard format for most events. In the sprints and hurdles it is in fact pre-determined as the standard stadium has eight lanes.

This is the "Catch 22" situation that makes this whole ranking concept inherently flawed as a tool to fairly select the "Best 32" athletes to be allowed to compete in the World Championships. Because that "demarcation line" will be drawn among athletes that never have had the chance to prove their competitive ability in meets where there are significant bonus points available.

Another remarkable factor is that placing outside top-12 in the World Championships or the Olympics gives you no bonus points at all. In London last summer the Discus Throw had the best qualification round ever where - in almost windless conditions - it took 63.23 to advance and 62.71 only put you 17th.

Which should be viewed bearing in mind that in the previous eight editions of the World Championships this century 62.71 would have put you in the top-12 every time but one - when you needed one more centimeter (62.72).

When 2 centimeters equals 5½ meters

Traves Smikle took the last place into the final by a mere 2 centimeters advantage (63.23 vs 63.21) over Lolassonn Djouhan and 7 cm (63.23 vs 63.16) over Philip Milanov. Those miniscule margins in the competition meant that Smikle was guaranteed a bonus of at least 100 points - corresponding as said to 5½ meters in distance - while Djouhan and Milanov got zero bonus!

So for Djouhan his impressive performance in the by far most significant meet of the year doesn't even feature among his five scoring meets in the rankings. Actually he would have scored more ranking points if he had won his national title against no international class opposition with a 58-something throw. This is of course absurd.

And this clearly illustrates a "bug" that simply can't be fixed as it it is due to the fact that the number of competitors per event in a meet is so tightly restricted. In sports like tennis or golf even the majors accept a hundred or more participants: In Wimbledon e.g. they are 128 players in the tournament and in the golf majors the standard field (Augusta the exception with "just" 90+) is 156!

Compare that to athletics where in our majors (Diamond League) no one is coming even 18th in the 100m or 23rd in the Pole Vault. And if we don't have those placings we can of course not attribute any ranking points to them, so we are stuck with giving all major bonus points to a very select few, usually top-8.

Such a system thus can never ever work as a ranking tool for athletes around the cut-off points which for the World Championships vary between top-32 and top-56! As said above not even a 13th place at the World Championships is worth any more bonus than finishing last! Just think about it: To be No 13 in the world and still not get any ranking credit whatsoever!

In the 2 April Discus rankings the point score spread between places No 29 and 40 was a mere 19 points. 19 points corresponds to approximately one meter in measured performance but it is also less than you get as bonus for an 8th place in a second tier Area permit meeting and half of what you get for 8th place in your national championships!

So 19 points is almost nothing in the scoring system but still it will - if the system is introduced - decide who will be allowed to compete in the World Championships or the Olympic Games.

Where can you get any bonus?

These twelve athletes concerned have bonus sums for their five scoring performances between 113 and 250, that means that the average bonus per meet varies between 22 and 50 points. Noteworthy: For 11 out of those 12 the top bonus score came from a meet on "home soil", in seven cases it was the national championships.

This once more underlines that this is a group of athletes for which significant bonus scores from meets on the big international stage are unaccessible. If you are lucky your nation hosts an Area permit meeting and if you are very lucky there is no real competition at your national championships.

But it would be unacceptably unfair to the athletes if such factors - over which they personally have no influence whatsoever - should decide their right to compete in the global championships. If it is - as now - down to their actual performances it could also be not completely fair but then at least the criteria is objective and obvious to everyone.

And as said it is problem that not could be solved no matter how much you tweak the algorithms and parameters! Setting up any ranking according this philosophy that will be fair to the athletes is indeed a futile pursuit.

If one would like to modify the current top-list-method to reduce the influence of one-off marks in deciding championship entry rights there actually is a much much simpler and fairer way to do it: Just take the average of their top-3 performances. Such a process is not only simpler but also immediately accessible and transparent for all stakeholders.

Just like any crucially decisive process should always be in the sport of athletics!

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