Championships, gala — or what?

SOPOT, Poland — Let’s say you dropped into Sunday’s final day of the 2014 world indoor track and field championships.

Further, you were a stranger to the sport, maybe kinda-sorta checking it out, a local from here in Sopot or Gdansk.

The program started at 2:50 in the afternoon. It wrapped up a little past 7 in the evening. That’s just over four hours. In those four-plus hours you saw — deep breath now — 14 events, two semifinals and 12 finals, as well as 17 medal ceremonies.

Ethiopia's Genzebe Dibaba winning the women's 3k // photo Getty Images

Ethiopia’s Genzebe Dibaba winning the women’s 3k // photo Getty Images

Essentially, you went to the circus. All that was missing was lions, tigers and bears.

This has to change.

At one instant Sunday, long jumper Erica Jarder of Sweden, the 2013 European indoor bronze medalist, launched herself into the pit exactly as, at the other end of the infield, Polish pole vaulter Anna Rogowska, the 2009 world champion and 2004 Athens bronze medalist, was going up and over the bar. Bad timing for Erica Jarder. She might as well have been invisible.

Later, the gaggle of guys running the 3000 meters circled the track as, again, Rogowska jumped at 4.7 meters, or 15 feet, 5 inches, the crowd clapping for her, paying the guys little if any attention. The 39-year-old defending champ, Bernard Lagat of the United States, had been shown pre-race on the big-screen. But what about the 21-year-old sensation Caleb Ndiku of Kenya, who would go on to out-kick Lagat and, you know, win?

A few moments later still, as American Chanelle Price, Poland’s Angelika Cichocka and Marina Arzamasova of Belarus were taking their victory laps — Price the first American woman to win an 800, indoors or out, at a senior IAAF championship — the guy high jumpers were, one after another, doing warm-up leaps over the bar. Halfway through that 800 victory lap,  the medal ceremony for Saturday’s men’s 60-meter dash broke in, the strains of “God Save the Queen” ringing out for Britain’s Richard Kilty, the photographers framing him just so with American Marvin Bracy and Qatar’s Femi Ogunode.

Everyone connected to track and field recognizes this problem. It is the deep, dark secret. A day like Sunday merely underscores the challenge, if you prefer a more connotatively neutral word.

Are the indoor worlds in particular a championships, or a gala? Like, what?

To frame it differently: why is pole vault a straight final but not high jump, which involved a qualification round?

Track and field is the the leading sport in the Olympic movement. But other sports — swimming, in particular — are gaining ground, and fast, which is why the International Olympic Committee last year elevated swimming and gymnastics into the top tier of Olympic revenue-sharers; the IAAF used to be alone in that top tier.

One of the main reasons: those other sports have made major changes in their presentations to the viewing public.

By contrast, track and field has pretty much stayed the same. A track meet in 2014 is essentially like going to a track meet in 1994 or 1974.

This has to change.

Of course, the essence, the beauty, of track and field is that it has an amazing tradition, including records from way back that you can compare to today’s athletes. (Let’s put aside, for just a moment, doping controversies and certain 1980s seemingly never-to-be-matched records.)

Track still has the capacity to produce amazing athletes from the world’s four corners. Genzebe Dibaba of Ethiopia is a marvel. The world record-holder in the event, she won the women’s 3000 Sunday, dropping everyone else like they were irrelevant, winning in 8:55.04. The Kenyan champion, Hellen Onsando Obiri, was more than two seconds back, in 8:57.72.

How best to spotlight a race like the 3k with a talent like Dibaba in it? While the women’s pole vault and men’s high jump are going on simultaneously?

The very last event on the program, the men’s 4×400 relay, produced a new world indoor record, 3:02.13, set by Americans Kyle Clemons, David Verburg, Kind Butler III, Calvin Smith Jr.; there was so much going on that any announcement was lost in the general din.

The IAAF on Sunday thoughtfully provided a stapled results package from both Friday and Saturday to the members of the press. Friday’s ran to 41 pages. Saturday’s, 42.

On the one hand, this was glorious for stat freaks.

On the other, this highlighted the magnitude of what’s at stake.

Why so many events? So much stuff?

Every sport has to evolve, and track is way, way too slow to get with the program.

Now — right now — is the time to do so.

These figure to be the last years of Usain Bolt’s reign. Since 2008, he has been — pretty much by himself — the face of track and field everywhere in the world.

Bolt doesn’t do the indoors. That right there — despite the fact that Sopot 2014 was, legitimately, the most important international meet of the year, because there are no world outdoor championships — tells you things need to be looked at closely.

Bolt isn’t even here for ceremonial purposes. Why not?

These are also the final years, presumably, of Lamine Diack’s years as IAAF president.

Now is the time to lay the groundwork for the big changes that have to happen, beginning with the next Olympic cycle in 2016 — and, better yet, before, with the 2015 worlds in Beijing and the 2016 indoors in Portland.

The IAAF, to its credit, recognizes it has issues. That’s why it is launching the world relays, the first edition in Nassau, Bahamas, in May.

Giving some more credit — the IAAF mobile-phone app is the best on the Olympic scene. Flat-out.

But more, much more, needs to be done.

If you go now to a major swim meet, you see the way it can be done.

In theory, a swim meet should be the most boring thing imaginable. What could be more dull than watching eight or nine people swim laps with their heads at or under the water?

Instead, USA Swimming in particular, and FINA, the international federation, have made swim meets electric. At the U.S. Trials, there are fireworks. Indoors. As a matter of course, the athletes now come out from behind curtains to be introduced individually, with spotlights and to the beat of rock music. It generates a sense of competition and drama.

There’s nothing like that at a major track meet. The internal TV camera feed goes down the line as racers stand in front of the blocks. But only Bolt has understood over the years how to really play to the camera — that is, to play to the crowd. And because there are way too many competitors there’s no time for individualized music.

It’s not just the indoors meets at which there’s too much happening. At last summer’s world championships in Moscow, or on an average night at an Olympic Games, there typically are seven or eight events going on over two-and-a-half or three hours, sometimes longer.

On Day 6 of the Moscow 2013 worlds, for instance, one of the great men’s high jump competitions in history had to compete for attention with the heats of the men’s 4×400 relay; the women’s triple jump final; the women’s 200-meter semifinal; and, then, in succession, finals in the women’s steeplechase, women’s and men’s 400-meter hurdles and, finally, the women’s 1500 meters.

Absolutely, some leading voices within track and field recognize the issues — among them Sergey Bubka of Ukraine and Seb Coe of Great Britain — and are mindful of the need for change.

Bubka’s mid-winter pole vault-only meet in Donetsk, Ukraine, for instance, with its rock-and-roll back beat, offers an intriguing model. What if, for instance, a particular world championships session was one discipline only?

Or: what if the qualifications were set beforehand and, say, a particular discipline at a world championships was limited to eight or 12 competitors? Couldn’t the current Diamond League system, if it were tweaked, offer a way to make that happen?

Most critically: how do you get geeked-up teenagers and 20-somethings to want to come to track meets all stoked out like at slopestyle and snowboard events? No — seriously.

The International Olympic Committee is taking 2014 to undertake studies leading to potentially wide-ranging reform; an all-members assembly has been called for Monaco in December.

What if the IAAF undertook a similar process?

All reasonable ideas ought to be on the table.



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11 thoughts on “Championships, gala — or what?

  1. How about this – Swim meets can afford to do so because, generally speaking you can only have one event going on at a time. ONe pool. One race. No distractions. In track and field, you have many events that can be competed at the same time. That’s why you have each competition area relatively separate. If you introduced everyone individually, held one event at a time, etc., a regular high school invitational could take two days. And honestly, who thinks we’re going to draw in casual fans? Only people who have been involved in Track and field will ever care.

  2. “Let’s say you were a stranger to the sport, maybe kinda-sorta checking it out, a local from here in Sopot or Gdansk” – how about a local from Rupniow Poland, my girlfriend? Or a 10 year old family friend who came up from Warsaw?

    For me, a track nut, I was worried how the meet would keep their attention. Their response? It was an awesome event, lots of action, great athletes, a chance to see them up close, excellent guidance by the announcers on which event to watch at the time.

    Stringing out the event is a move for the track enthusiast, not the casual fan.

  3. it seems clear that they need on-screen gimmicks like they use in Nascar. So, how do you make the 3k enjoyable to anyone but a trackhead? Put a digital pointer on athletes from time to time and show their pace per mile or speed in MPH or KPH. This way, you see who the athletes are and you can really feel what is going on tactically. otherwise, you get the same thing–watch the first part, cut away, watch a bit in the middle, cut away, watch the kick. You missed the entire race and more important, the essence of the sport.

  4. ” In those four-plus hours you saw — deep breath now — 14 events, two semifinals and 12 finals, as well as 17 medal ceremonies.” — Well, most folks will have to decide between focusing on the throws, jumps, and races. So, watching 14 events isn’t completely accurate.

  5. Another factor at least for American fans is that in swimming the US wins a lot of medals. Every swim event (probably) has at least 1 American contending. Swimming venues also are smaller than track venues (indoors might be close).

    I think IAAF should have outdoor worlds every now Olympic year (some have worlds even in Olympic years). No idea how to handle the multiple events at once. One option would be a “second screen” format. Provide via free wi fi in the venue feeds for each event. I can bring my iPad (or rent one at the venue). During the breaks between the running events I can pull up the LJ feed so I can see it versus being all the way across the venue. The second screen experience could also offer introductions and stats on the athletes. Let’s say I just saw a jumper and want to know more about him or her—click on the app. Most of that info is already on the IAAF app (I agree that it is good).

    • Hi……ironically, meets are better attended in Europe, except for Eugene, and New York outdoors. Unfortunately, the majority of T & F fans in North America are recreational / fitness runners, who only care about 3,000m,
      5,000m, 10,000m, & 1/2 or full marathon. They have few clues about most events, unless there is an American in an event, so they chant “USA !…..USA !…. As the World steadily creeps up on the US , T & F is in trouble. The Earth goes around the Sun, not the Sun around the Earth. That would be called American Exceptionalism.
      The answer lies in education of the general populace. In Canada, we are all just dumb hockey pucks, and in the US, the NFL is the center of jockdom.
      Good luck with this puppy.
      John Thompson.

  6. As Sam writes, going digital would be a big bonus for filling in the blanks and changing focus from 1 event to another. I love the idea of wifi fed “second screen”. I live in Eugene and have been a track fan and participant all my 58 years. The announcing and on-site information is severely lacking, especially in field events and races over 400M. I really wonder what the organizers are thinking. Why is a long jump length only displayed for seconds and only in a limited direction? Why is that guy sitting in front of the display? What is the leading jump? Who are the first 5 runners on the 8th lap of the 5K? Etc.
    TV coverage is much worse. We were watching the SEC indoor champs just last night. A hard fought men’s mile was won by the UK runner, but only he was shown crossing the finish, the camera followed him as he slowed and then showed some fans, never returning to the track. Really? Who got second? Where was the drama of the rest of the finish as the UK runner won easily? The drama is in the rest of the story not shown on camera.
    I disagree with John Thompson. I have been to many many meets all around the U.S. Yes distance runners often attend in abundance, but distance races take time, so fans can come and relax awhile. But at most of the big meets that I have attended, the crowd swells for the 100M, 100M hurdles and a sometimes some field events with big names. Then they rush away when the event is over. When they stay longer, they are stuck with the lousy on-site coverage and become bored with not understanding the true excitement of each individual event.
    More information about what is going on both on tv and in person at meets will give viewers a reason to relate to the competitors. They won’t just be watching unknown athletes compete. And on tv, not even know how they finished. I just love the field events on tv, here’s the 3rd place jump, now the second place and in a minute we’ll show you the winning jump. Really, that’s the drama of competition? Am I so interested in the jumper’s form that that is all I want to see? Or maybe you can just show me the winning jump as often is the case. So after the ridiculous SEC meet, I, a dedicated track enthusiast, will no longer watch tv meets.
    Change all this, and you’ll create fans.

  7. A simple first step would be to break up the track and field events into separate events/ separate championships. (All track and all field) Despite historical underpinnings they have little to do with each other. Outside of college and high school the days of athletes who do both are long gone. To use your analogy, they don’t have diving championship in a pool adjacent to swimming races….they are separate. This would allow more focus on individuals.

  8. We attended Pre in 2010. It was a beautiful circus! My family adored every minute of it. We were seated next to a large group of 60 somethings from Utah that had stumbled upon it 12 years earlier. None of them had any previous T&F interests, yet they come back every year for Pre. My vote is – make it busy, make it finals only & pump up the volume! Track rocks if you promote it like rock – fill the stage!

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