Track and field World Cup: 'fixture' or one-off?

LONDON — Keep it simple, stupid, Bill Clinton would have advised, and here is the problem with track and field, exemplified with this weekend’s first Athletics World Cup back at Olympic Stadium. 

This meet sought so desperately to be so many things — too many things — to so many people on so many levels. 

Organizers tried to put together a world-class meet in about six months though the schedule of world sport is already jammed to the max, the calendar of track and field is itself a mess and, maybe, most of all, it’s unclear how a meet like this can draw the world’s best runners, jumpers and throwers in a way that everyone — and in particular, a wide range of athletes — can make money. Real money.

 The victorious American team // Getty Images

The victorious American team // Getty Images

That last bit requires a further set of questions, all fundamental. Track and field is a professional sport. What is a reasonable payday? For a star? For someone who is in his or her first pro meet? For someone who, say, runs the open 400 meters as opposed to someone who runs but a leg in a relay? For someone who pulls double duty? Should the pay standards be different for track athletes and those in the field events? 

Switching gears: who thought a trophy should cost $400,000, and why?

So many threads. Pull, and it’s clear why the tapestry of track and field is at once so beautiful and so frayed.

Start with this incontrovertible, non-arguable premise: 2018 is a non-Olympics and non-world championships year. 

Thus 2018 would seem, in theory, suited to introduce a new, high-profile event, particularly at Olympic Stadium, site of last year’s world championships and for many the world’s best venue for a track and field meet. 

The thinking went that there might especially be appetite for a team event. After all — the soccer World Cup? The Olympics? 

At these events, even if a casual fan might have to be introduced to the athletes themselves, there’s a natural national rooting interest. 

As the South African sprinter Simon Magwake said after finishing third in the men’s 100, “I mean, there is a [soccer] World Cup, so why not one in athletics?”

Right?

Also, as many have noted, there’s college track and field in the United States. Same principle: even if the athletes and even the events, for that matter, might be relatively unfamiliar, fans bring with them a built-in interest — like at this year’s NCAA championships, one of the best ever, the USC women’s 4x4 relay championship run becoming an internet and cable TV sensation.

This World Cup — British-run, not an IAAF production — evolved after an initial thought, thrown out there immediately after last year’s world championships, of a United States versus Britain dual meet. Then it morphed into an eight-team event: the U.S., Britain, Poland, South Africa, China, France, Germany and Jamaica.

The problem is, professional track and field is not like the soccer World Cup, not like the Olympics and, assuredly, it is not college track and field. 

“A resounding success, the Athletics World Cup will surely become a much-anticipated fixture in the world athletics calendar in years to come,” the closing news release declared.

Not so fast.

It is far from unclear whether any event but the Olympics or worlds can deliver that compelling national interest that brings fans regularly to this or any stadium and, to begin, this World Cup made crystal clear 1) the challenges and complexities in plugging a new event into the global sports and specific track calendars even as 2) the interchange among agents, managers and shoe company sponsors 3) left the meet with a glaring lack of star power.

Unless those three elements get fixed, this meet likely goes nowhere in the future. 

Because it’s not enough to throw people out there and have them run, jump or throw. All sports need stars. Especially track and field.

A quick look at the calendar issues, even in this non-Olympic and non-worlds 2018:

The IAAF world under-20 championships wrapped up Sunday after a six-day run in Tampere, Finland.

The IAAF Diamond League series is ongoing: on Friday in Rabat, Morocco; next Friday in Monaco; back here at Olympic Stadium in London next Saturday and Sunday.

Then there’s soccer.

On Saturday, England played for third place in the World Cup. And lost, to Belgium, 2-0. 

On Sunday, France defeated Croatia, 4-2, to win the tournament.

Next year? Women’s soccer World Cup.

2020? Summer Olympics. 

Across London, meanwhile, there was Wimbledon.

An epic five-set men’s semifinal between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal concluded Saturday, Djokovic winning in five sets; followed by the women’s final, a match that drew the duchesses formerly known as Meghan Markle and Kate Middleton, the duo’s first solo outing as sisters-in-law, to watch Angelique Kerber defeat Meghan’s good friend, Serena Williams, 6-3, 6-3; followed by Sunday’s men’s final, in which Djokovic ran through Kevin Anderson in three sets.

Attendance figures for the meet reflected all the goings-on.

Saturday, per organizers: 31,392. Olympic Stadium seats roughly 57,000.

Sunday: 23,848. The soccer game ended about 6. The meet started at 6:45. The stadium was often bizarrely dead quiet; before the women’s 100 hurdles, you could hear the echo around the structure of American Queen Harrison slapping her thighs in anticipation of the race.

The sisters-in-law did not attend the track meet.

Of course, Usain Bolt didn’t run at the Athletics World Cup. He retired after last year’s worlds. Where was Bolt, still the sport’s singular star? At the soccer World Cup final. 

The U.S. sprinter Justin Gatlin, who defeated Bolt at last year’s worlds in the men’s 100, didn’t run here, either. Upside/downside: no Gatlin deprived organizers of a huge draw and the crowds the chance to boo. 

Fascinatingly, Jamaica’s Nesta Carter, tagged for doping that in a decision affirmed in late May by a sports tribunal cost Bolt a ninth Olympic medal, from the 4x1 relay at the 2008 Games, ran the second leg of his nation’s 4x1 on Saturday. If anyone were to be booed, wouldn’t it stand to reason it ought to be Nesta Carter? There were no boos, renewed evidence of the absurd double standard that greets Gatlin at Olympic Stadium. “It is always a great atmosphere and lots of support here in London,” Carter would say afterward. 

It’s not just that the likes of Bolt and Gatlin weren’t here.

Not at this meet for the home British team: sprinters Reece Prescod and Chijindu Ujah (both ran in Rabat), and middle-distance standout Laura Muir.

Caster Semenya, the South African middle-distance champion, was not here. She ran Friday in Rabat, going 2:31.01 to win a 1000-meter race by more than four seconds. 

The Kenyans were not invited.

There were no Russians here — or, in IAAF-speak, “Authorized Neutral Athletes.” So, for instance, no Maria Lasitskene, the high jump champion. On Friday in Rabat, she lost for the first time in 45 meets. 

Without Bolt and Gatlin, who ran the 100? 

The men’s 100 in Rabat at Friday featured four of the year’s best sprinters, all Americans. World indoor champion Christian Coleman, second behind Gatlin at last year’s worlds, went 9.98 to edge Ronnie Baker (also 9.98), Noah Lyles (9.99) and Mike Rodgers (10.01).

Not in London: any of those guys. 

Jamaica’s Tyquendo Tracey won Sunday’s race, in a personal-best 10.03. Kendal Williams, the 2014 world junior champion, ran for the United States, finishing second, in 10.05.

To be fair, the meet did offer some A-level competition: 

American Clayton Murphy edged Poland’s Adam Kszczot in the men’s 800; Cameron Burrell anchored the U.S. men to victory in the 4x1 in front of, among others, his former assistant college coach, Carl Lewis; U.S. pole vaulter Sam Kendricks, the 2017 world gold medalist and Rio 2016 bronze medalist, won easily, at 5.83 meters, or 19 feet, 1-1/2 inches.

 The winning American 4x1 relay team // Getty Images 

The winning American 4x1 relay team // Getty Images 

The British women, in 42.52 seconds, defeated the Jamaicans, eight hundredths back, in the 4x1. Leading off for that Jamaican team: multiple Olympic and world 100 gold medalist Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce. In the women’s 200, Shericka Jackson of Jamaica, in 22.35, ran down American Jenna Prandini, a tenth behind. American Vashti Cunningham won the high jump in a season-best 1.96 meters, or 6-5.

Too often, though, it bore the feel of a B-team get-together.

This is perhaps the result of another truism: you get what you pay for, and more on this — much more — below.

On one of his throws, for instance, American thrower Reggie Jager launched his discus into the nets.

In the women’s 1500, South Africa’s Carina Viljoen finished sixth of six, in 4:29.57, almost 22 seconds behind winner Sofia Ennaoui of Poland, in 4:07.66. 

For reference:

The world lead in the women’s 1500 in 2018, from Ethiopia’s Genzebe’s Dibaba, on June 8, is 3:56.68. That 4:07.66 from Ennaoui is essentially 11 seconds slower. 

On the men’s side, on June 30, Timothy Cheruiyot of Kenya ran what is so far the world’s fastest 1500 of the year, 3:29.71. Poland’s Marcin Lewandowski won Sunday’s race, in 3:52.88, more than 23 seconds slower. Since the 1500, to be fair, can be a tactical affair — for the record, Lewandowski’s season’s best is nearly eight seconds back of Cheruiyot. 

Running Sunday in the men’s 1500 for the United States — recall that American Matthew Centrowitz,  Jr. is the Rio 2016 gold medalist in this race — was was Izaic Yorks, runner-up at this year’s national championships; he finished fourth, in 3:53.5.

It’s fair to expect any start-up to encounter a glitch or three along the way. 

All the same, in many respects a track meet at Olympic Stadium is the farthest thing from a start-up and it is inexplicable how the production values of what was supposed to be a world-class event simply did not meet expectations.

The program promised fans, “Finished within three hours on each [of the two days], the action will be fast paced with each session featuring an even split of eight field events and nine track events, building to a finish involving two relay events.”

Note to organizers: 17 per night is still way too many. 

Saturday’s action got underway at 6:45 p.m. with the women’s pole vault. The men’s 4x1 relay, the final event, was at 9:45 p.m. 

Look, a world-class swim meet goes two hours. A track meet is scheduled for three because — why?

At any rate:

After that relay, most fans — logically enough — left.

But the men’s high jump and women’s javelin were still ongoing. 

The high jump ended at 10:05 p.m. 

The javelin medal ceremony followed a minute later. 

The high jump ceremony took place at 10:10, and if this were high school, you’d say there were family and friends still left in the stands. 

If this would have been on live television, a 25-minute run-over would be a disaster. Track and field simply cannot afford this kind of thing. A Wimbledon semifinal with Djokovic and Nadal that runs until, or maybe even a minute or two past, 11 p.m.? OK. But a men’s high jump won by American Jeron Robinson, and at 2.30 meters, 7-6 1/2, well under the world lead for the year? (2.40, or 7-10 1/2, July 2, from Qatar’s Mutaz Essa Barshim.) Not a chance.

American Kara Winger finished second in the javelin. She said of the ceremony, “It’s a shame some folks left after the track events but it just creates a really personal atmosphere on the podium.”

 The big award ceremony yet to come -- but fans are on the way out 

The big award ceremony yet to come -- but fans are on the way out 

On Sunday, same problem. 

After the final relay, fans boogied for the exits. A much-vaunted awards ceremony — fireworks, even — played out before a largely empty stadium. 

— 

Kudos to Winger, who is in every way an A-teamer, a three-time Olympian (2008-16), perhaps someone the purportedly knowledgeable British fans might have encountered previously.

All the same, deprived of the opportunity to boo Gatlin, crowds might have been further mystified about who was on which team, and in particular the American entries when, turning to the program, the two pages on the U.S. squad featured the sprint and long jump champion Tianna Bartoletta — except, oops, Bartoletta did not compete here, either. 

The program, incidentally, did note: “Quanesha Banks will compete in Bartoletta’s long jump discipline for the US.”

That came just a few sentences after quoting Bartoletta thusly:

“It feels so good to be able to go into a team setting and know that you can contribute the best you have on that day and you have a whole team lifting you up if it’s not a perfect day for you. These types of events are what recharge us and keep us in the sport for longer.”

Bartoletta, also quoted in the program: “This year, it means a lot to Americans to make another team. There are so many of us and to have opportunities like this allows our sport to continue to grow.”

 Tianna Bartoletta winning the long jump at last year's world championships // Getty Images 

Tianna Bartoletta winning the long jump at last year's world championships // Getty Images 

At her blog, meantime, Bartoletta — one of the sport’s most introspective, thoughtful and articulate athletes — on July 10 put up a bomb of a post, must-reading for anyone who cares about track and field, that included these comments: 

“ … [H]ad I gotten a million dollar contract 13 years ago when I started I probably wouldn’t still be doing this. 

“… I’d run for a few years, make my money. Make that money make more money, and decide to move on to something else. I think that one of the reasons I’m still here all these years later is because I’ve never felt justly compensated for — or validated by my effort, for my accomplishments,” and as a reminder Bartoletta is the 2016 Rio gold medalist in the long jump, a two-time Olympic gold medalist in the 4x1 relay (Rio 2016, London 2012) and, as well, the Beijing 2015 and Helsinki 2005 long jump world champion. She is also the 2006 Moscow indoor world champ in the long jump. 

“If I left the sport today sure, I’d be leaving with six gold medals, three bronze medals (London 2017 long jump, Sopot 2014 and Istanbul 2012 indoor worlds 60m), and a world record (ran the lead-off leg of women’s 4x1 40.82 at London 2012) BUT I’d also be leaving with barely a nickel to my name to help propel me to my ‘next thing.’ Sure I’ve been stolen from by people I thought I could trust and their actions against me are mostly responsible for my current situation but I also don’t have sponsors banging down my door, offering monetary support, or asking for my endorsement …”

And this three-sentence, three-paragraph string:

“I am a professional.

“This is a business.

“But it’s a f**king mess.”

This brings us to the professional part of professional track and field, the business bit.

The Americans won the meet, racking up 219 points (winning an event earned eight points, second place got seven, third six, all the way down to eighth and one point); Poland finished second, with 162; Britain, third, 155.

As the winning team, the Americans split what the program called an “abundance on offer,” $450,000, with “all competing athletes receiving an equal share of the prize money.”

Organizers figured it would be easy math: $450,000 divided by 45 athletes = $10,000 apiece.

Per USA Track & Field, however, the Americans handled their business slightly differently, and no criticism of that implied here in any way, just an accounting recounting:

Individual team members got $12,000 apiece, relay members $7,500 each. If someone was in more than one event (open plus relay, for instance), they earned both the individual and relay sums. 

For a field-event athlete, $12,000 almost surely counted as a big financial victory. Winning the USATF outdoor championship at Des Moines got you $8k, and appearance fees elsewhere can often be non-existent.

Meanwhile, for the likes of Paul Dedewo, second in Des Moines, who won the men’s 400 Sunday in a personal-best 44.48 and then ran the third leg of the 4x4, this was a good weekend.

Same for Courtney Okolo, the 2018 world indoor champ, who finished fifth in the women’s 400 on Saturday and then ran the anchor leg of the 4x4. 

Same for Kendal Williams, runner-up in that 100, second leg of the 4x1. 

Same $19,500. 

Now, equity fans — on what grounds do Williams and Okolo deserve the same prize money as Dedewo? 

Dedewo won the 400! Doesn’t that count for — something?!

In this sort of team event, though, you get no more money for winning a particular race or event than if you had finished eighth. Though, of course, enough of you on the team had to win to split some sum to begin with — obviously.

This problem came back to bite the British at the very end of the meet, when they could only put out three guys for the 4x4 relay — it was too late to substitute for the fourth, who immediately before the start had injured himself — and had to DQ. 

Poland’s team ended up splitting — in theory — $8,888 apiece.

The Brits got $7,777.

All this math.

And one big-picture question:

For real, $12,500, or $10,000, or $8,888, or $7,777 — none of these numbers is to be sneezed at. All are better than “zero.”

But under what metric can any of these be considered an “abundance”?

All sports depend on stars. Under what theory, if he were still competing, would Bolt have agreed to show up to run for the low thousands he would have earned here, Jamaica finishing fourth? 

Wait, what’s this discrepancy?

 The Platinum Trophy polished before presentation // Getty Images

The Platinum Trophy polished before presentation // Getty Images

The winning team also got to take home the new “highly coveted Platinum Trophy,” an award “believed to surpass the FIFA football World Cup, the Wimbledon trophy and ice hockey’s Stanley Cup when it comes to value.” It was paraded out amid those fireworks.

As described: “The Platinum Trophy took more than 650 man hours to create — standing at 512 mm tall,” just over 20 inches, “and weighing a total of 6.1 kilos,” or 13.4 pounds “— it is truly a sight to behold. The base of the trophy was also made using bog oak, believed to be 5000 years old, from the Fens in Cambridgeshire. It is thought that the remains came from a primeval forest which stood on the site at the end of the last ice age.”

A news release said it cost over 300,000 British pounds, or roughly $400,000, and described it as “the most valuable global sporting trophy ever made.”

Not sure what the Platinum Trophy would fetch at a pawn shop but, given everything, it’s reasonable to ask whether this, in 2018, makes for the best use of limited sponsor resource in track and field.

Tianna Bartoletta has bills to pay. You know?