08 February, 2015

Save the triple jump

In a recent post of mine I commented on the folly of the IOC and their plans to amputate the olympic program of athletics. I could not help going back to what I consider a sacrilege and, although I already presented my point of view, I felt that a follow-up was in order.

I chose to dedicate this post to the triple jump but I could equally well write about shot put or any other of the disciplines which are in danger of been kicked out of the olympic programme. Here’s what may happen. The five disciplines, 20000 m men’s race-walking, 10000 m, 200 m, shot put and triple jump may disappear from 2020 onwards. I have amply discussed the arbitrariness of this choice and presented my arguments in favour of the last four or, if pushed to my extreme defences, the last three events. As you most probably have noticed by now, I do not care much about race-walking, so it is OK for me if they drop it from the olympic programme. But how is it possible to contemplate seriously to exclude the triple jump and shot put from the Olympics, events that have been present since 1896? (In fact the last time some event disappeared from the olympic athletics programme without being replaced by something similar, was in 1928).

Joao de Oliveira, ex-world record holder and Olympic medalist

The one thing that we hear repeated at nauseam is Coubertin’s moto (which, by the way, is not his): “participation is more important than winning”. But how can they talk about participation when they plan to expel from the Games a substantial part of modern athletics. At this point I cannot refrain from giving my opinion of the "great" Baron de Coubertin, venerated by generations of people interested in sports. The creation of modern Olympics was based on some serious misunderstandings of the ancient ones on the part of Coubertin. Contrary to what he thought, the ancient athletes were not amateur. Modern athletics have suffered for years due to this misconception (with the help of another infamous figure, that of A. Brundage, but more on the latter in some other post perhaps). In fact Coubertin, being of aristocratic extraction, was using the amateurism argument in order to assert the control of the upper over the working classes in the domain of sport. His misogyny was responsible for the absence of women from the Olympic Games: up to the Second World War the percentage of women participating at the Olympics did not exceed 10 %. And just to settle once and for all the “participation” argument: if there is one point where Coubertin did not understand the ancients it was in the importance of winning. Even St. Paul got it right: in his epistle to Corinthians he writes explicitly "Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize?" Perhaps Coubertin was not familiar with the writings of St. Paul.

Chrysopigi Devetzi, World and Olympic medalist

So what is the point of trying to curtail the olympic athletics programme? What is the IOC trying to do? To put it bluntly, they are trying to reduce the number of participants and the time dedicated to athletics so that they can add new disciplines to the Olympic programme, disciplines which will arrive bringing a substantial dowry thanks to television rights and sponsors. I can understand that, living in an era where the only thing that counts is money, the IOC is eager to capitalise on the success of the Games and maximise their profits. But is it necessary to amputate the olympic athletics programme in order to do this? As I will explain below this is totally unwarranted. There exist several perfectly acceptable technical solutions. In fact, before considering solutions which would have an impact on athletics, it is clear that the programme should be relieved of disciplines which are either marginal (like the vintage “modern” pentathlon created by Coubertin himself in 1912) or duplicate existing events, like the “team” competition in fencing. But let us concentrate on how the programme of track and field events could be made more compact. 

Jonathan Edwards, World and Olympic champion and world record holder

First, if we are serious about limiting the number of participants, the simplest solution would be to imitate swimming and limit the number of athletes of a given country per event to just two. While this would not allow to reduce the number of athletes by 1/3 (some countries manage to qualify only one or two athletes) it will definitely definitely bring the gain closer to the 20 % that is targeted by the suppression of the five events. Second, qualifying limits can be made harder and thus further reduce the number of athletes who make it to the Olympics. (Remember, we are not talking about participation any more: the important thing is winning). Finally, we could fix the total number of athletes admitted at each event in such a way as to minimise the number of qualifying events. 

This last point would merit that we spend a few lines on it. Fixing the number of qualified athletes and admitting the best ones in the Games has definite advantages but, on the other hand, excludes from the Games all but the very best. Although I do not understand what is the point of having a sprinter from some exotic country participate at the 100 m and run in 12 seconds, I can understand that the IOC wishes to have as a large a participation as possible, when it comes to countries. The only solution to my eyes is then to organise a pre-olympic tournament, say a month before the Games, and have all athletes who do not have already secured their ticket to the Olympics participate. In order to fix the ideas, let as assume that in some event we plan to have only the 24 best at the Olympics. This number can be obtained by taking the 18 best performers (based on results obtained in the year preceding the Olympics) and complement them by the first 6 of the pre-Olympic tournament. 

There are probably other technical solutions as well. Limiting the number of attempts in horizontal jumps and throws is one that springs to mind (although I do not really like it). Rethinking the whole organisation of vertical jump competitions and in particular that of the time-consuming pole vault could also lead to a time saving. In fact, anything would be better than the atrocity the IOC bigwigs are planning to inflict on athletics.

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