When the IAAF Council announced its significantly more strict Olympic entry standards for Tokyo 2020 on March 10th, and also changes to its Diamond League Tour, also for 2020 – essentially eliminating distance races over 3000m – the response from around the running world came fast and (mostly) furious.
Perhaps most chagrined was Rich Kenah, Executive Director of the Atlanta Track Club, who will host the U.S. Olympic Marathon Team Trials next February 20th. In wake of the strict new Olympic entry standards, the Atlanta Trials may not have much practical meaning in Olympic team selection anymore.
This whole Olympic entry standards tightening didn’t happen in a vacuum, of course; it came at the request of the IOC, which, since the Olympics returned to the Modern Era in 1896, has used the sport of athletics as its center-stage attraction. But now, as the sporting landscape has erupted with many more new sports looking for Olympic inclusion, the IOC doesn’t need as much from the sport of athletics as they once did.
It reminds me somewhat of when ESPN grew into the cable TV Hulk that came define an era. Here’s how.
When it was founded in 1979, ESPN needed a constant stream of content to satisfy its 24-hour appetite. So they contracted with outside producers for programming throughout much of their first decade. I know, because I was involved in two such programs produced by Salmini Films in New York City. “Running & Racing” was a 26-week magazine-format show hosted by Marty Liquori that began in 1985. The other program was “Race of the Month”, which I hosted beginning in 1989. But that same year Major League Baseball signed a $400 million deal with ESPN to show over 175 games beginning in 1990.
That contract with MLB changed how ESPN saw itself and re-mapped the road ahead. From 1990 forward, the folks in Bristol, Connecticut didn’t need as many outside producers to show barrel-jumping or road racing as they began creating their own content. Soon enough, “Race of the Month” ended up on Fox Sports Net.
There is a little of that same muscle flexing going on within the Olympic family now. With the onset of the Modern Olympics in 1896, there was a need for athletic content just like ESPN needed program content in 1979. Track and field was the lone world sport at the time, and so athletics became the Olympics centerpiece attraction, joined by wrestling, cycling, fencing, swimming, shooting, and gymnastics.
But eventually, when pro athletes were allowed into the Olympics and the marketplace for sports more fully matured, the IOC began to see the way forward with new sports – and even non-sports like breakdancing – looking to enter the Olympic spotlight. At the same time, the image of athletics began to be tarnished with the endless series of drug busts beginning with Ben Johnson in Seoul 1988. With those two forces at work, the Games no longer required athletics to provide as much content as they once did. In fact, we have seen a slow leaking away of athletics’ import in recent Games. For instance, the Olympic Men’s Marathon no longer closes the Games in the Olympic Stadium as a lead-in to the Closing Ceremony.
Two ways to look at the current situation. Option #1, accept the IOC mandate as a reflection of athletics’ own diminished standing and reduce its Olympic footprint as called for. Option #2, the IAAF might to assert a little of its own remaining power and say, “Fine, you don’t want us, then we’re going to start protecting our own World Championships like soccer does it’s World Cup. Beginning in 2020, only under-23 aged athletes go to the Tokyo Olympic Games.
“If you’re going to squeeze us out of a more robust Olympic program, which we always used to help develop the sport – and which originally defined the Games as being about inclusion as much as excellence – if you’re not going to help us, we’ll just have to go it on our own.”
That isn’t likely, of course, but now might be a good time to play hardball. After all, the new Olympic entry standards play into the needs of the IOC more than it does the IAAF. So far, though, the IAAF Council has selected Option #1, probably because athletics is so tied to the Olympics, that it’s too late to get out now. But as a Spanish proverb says: “It is better to be the head of a mouse than the tail of a lion.”
And so it goes.