Last week’s IAAF World Indoor Championships in Portland, Oregon has been praised for its innovations in track & field presentation, things like NBA-style player introductions, music during competitions, and medal ceremonies in Portland’s Courthouse Square. And while there were many performances to laud and races that stretched emotions taut, it must also be noted that there was an uneven quality to a meet billed as a “World Championships”.
Though 148 nations sent at least one representative to Portland — up from the 135 in Sopot, Poland in 2014, but down from the 168 in Istanbul, Turkey in 2012 — there was a shortage of top-flight fields in many events. One reason may well be the specter of the Rio Games this summer.
In an Olympic year the calendar flips very fast, and taking time off from training to travel and compete across many times zones can easily disrupt carefully crafted training regimes and proper peaking for Rio this summer. Accordingly, many events in Portland were less than fully stacked.
Consider 3000 meter women’s champion Genzebe Dibaba’s assessment of her gold medal performance. “It was easy for me because the field was not that strong.” And fellow gold medalist in the men’s 1500, Matthew Centrowitz, readily acknowledged that with three-time outdoor World Champion Asbel Kiprop of Kenya not in attendance, notwithstanding his own excellent performance against a still solid field, Centro’s self-deprecating message was, let’s not make more of this than we should.
Also touted was the American haul of 13 gold medals, most in history, and 23 medals overall, while the next best collector, Ethiopia, only managed two and five respectively. But those totals are not just a testament to American excellence and home field advantage. They also reflect the absence of the Russian team, traditionally the number two medal hauler in such World Championships, but this year banned from competition by the IAAF for its widespread PED use and federation complicity. Russia won nine medals in each of the last three world championships, and took home 11 in Valencia, Spain in 2008.
So while IAAF President Sebastian Coe attempts to resuscitate trust in his own leadership, and promoters like Oregon’s Vin Lananna explore innovations to spur public interest in the USA, much like an athlete who’s trying to regain top fitness after a major injury, it will take a considerable amount of time and hard work to fully regain athletics’ position as a significant member in the family of sports.
But at least those efforts are underway. And given the debilitating news the sport has suffered over the last several years, that, in itself, is most welcome.