POWER IS AS POWER DOES

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.

END

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5 thoughts on “POWER IS AS POWER DOES

  1. Toni:

    First, I believe that the original Olympics that were supposedly not restricted to “amateurs” was 1992, NOT 1984. Think about the first year with the USA Men’s “Dream Team” with NBA players like Michael Jordan allowed to participate in the Summer Olympics. Also, I believe that the NHL was allowed to have its players represent their home counties at the Winter Olympics that same year… back when the Winter and Summer Olympic Games were on the same year. Former AAU/TAC/USATF CEO Ollan Cassell references this watershed year and Olympic Games in his book as he presents himself as one of the key people responsible for overturning the hypocritical “amateur” mandate for both the IOC and the IAAF.

    Second, the new IOC/IAAF Olympic Qualifying “standards” may have gutted each country’s Olympic Trials perceived importance quite a bit but the elimination of 5000 m. and 10,000 m. events from the Diamond League Circuit Meets beginning in 2020 certainly also will “gut” distance running world wide… and narrows the market down to elite middle distance runners only rather than their long distance counterparts. But, this all got started earlier by the IAAF changing their World Cross Country Championships from a yearly affair to a “biennial” (every other year… I had to look this term up!) affair. The World X-C Champs used to be the only running world champs held every year… and enjoyed participation from the worlds best milers to the top global marathoners… but not anymore. And the prestige and participation in this once annual world championships has diminished as a result.

    Third, I have watched our sport coverage transition from “regular” network TV … to cable TV…. and now to “streaming video coverage” on the internet. I am now reading how cable TV is losing subscribers every day with their long term future very cloudy…. while the coverage of our sport of running and track has become primarily an “internet centered sport” for results and even live or tape delayed video coverage as well. The end results of my first two points above… may make this third point effectively complete within our lifetime. Sad but true….

  2. I remember those shows they were great….

    Also I posted the previous comment as anonymous since I forgot to sign in….

    The football World Cup is probably bigger than the Olympics in popularity and influence…. the track World Championships…..not so much…..threatening to only let under 23s in Olympics would probably bring a big laugh from the IOC….fine go ahead…

    Also remember no one who follows soccer or plays professionally really gives a toss about Men’s Olympic soccer..the World Cup is the only thing they care about.. certainly not so about track people…. so I don’t see this empty threat being a popular idea…or really effective.

  3. The football World Cup is probably bigger than the Olympics in popularity and influence…. the track World Championships…..not so much…..threatening to only let under 23s in Olympics would probably bring a big laugh from the IOC….fine go ahead…

    Also remember no one who follows soccer or plays professionally really gives a toss about Men’s Olympic soccer..the World Cup is the only thing they care about.. certainly not so about track people…. so I don’t see this empty threat being a popular idea…

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