I feel so sorry for those poor officials who mis-positioned the shot put laser measurement device at the 114th Millrose Games in New York last weekend.
Amidst near blizzard conditions outside, the heat was on inside the New York Armory. The measuring error, which originally marked Ryan Crouser’s second round effort as a world record, 23.38m, was later nullified, along with all the marks in the competition.
The incident underscores a major problem track and field has always had, and always will have in its fight (is it a fight?) to become a truly professional sport.
Hell, the sport isn’t rich enough to support the top 10 athletes in every discipline above $15,000/year. And then, much of the sport – roads, cross-country, track and field – requires and is beholden to well-meaning, sport-loving officials who earn between $0-$75 for overseeing events for several hours, 70%-90% of whom are over 60 years of age.
At some point, you get what you pay for, and without a professional support staff, every once in a while you’ll end up with result like we saw at Millrose, where what was originally thought to be a world record in the shotput was instead incorrectly determined by a misplaced technology.
But imagine how much it would cost to have a professional staff of officials in the sport?
For years, tennis had volunteer officials making line calls. But as the speed of the game increased with better conditioned athletes wielding newer, lighter rackets, the sport finally instituted challenges to line calls determined by Hawk-Eye technology to validate or overturn the human calls. Here is the thumbnail history via Atlantic Magazine:
Hawk-Eye’s instant review was first used in tennis in 2002 as part of the BBC’s Davis Cup coverage, and won an Emmy the next year for Outstanding Innovative Technical Achievement. The on-court replay system got its real big break, though, in 2004. A series of controversial line judgments were proven to have worked against Serena Williams in her three-set loss to Jennifer Capriati in the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open, and a clamor arose for better, more reliable line officiating.
Hawk-Eye then began cropping up at professional-level tennis events all over the globe for instant-review purposes. In 2008, the four governing bodies of professional tennis (the International Tennis Federation, the WTA, the Association of Tennis Professionals, and the Grand Slam Committee) bestowed their blessing on a unified set of challenge rules to be used across tournaments at the pro level: Players are allowed three unsuccessful challenges per set, with one extra allotted if the set reached a tie-break.
But the minute COVID-19 showed up in March 2020, and tournaments couldn’t put lines people out on the court anymore, they just relied on the Hawk-Eye replay technology to make all the calls from the beginning. Suddenly, without all the challenges, the matches went faster, and the petulant types had to find something else to bitch about to the chair umpire, because there weren’t arguments about missed calls. And given that they set the technology up properly, they simply eliminated the human error element.
Baseball has talked about the same thing for years where home-plate umpires (who are paid professionals) each have their own idiosyncratic strike zone. None seem to have read the rule book about what actually constitutes a high strike, which is the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the belt line. Instead, it’s different for every umpire. And let’s not get started on how they call anything within six inches of the outside corner as strikes.
The technology exists to make such balls and strikes calls unassailable. But the purists argue the human factor is a charming element of the game that shouldn’t be discarded so cavalierly. Plus, if they don’t position the equipment properly to begin with, you end up with what happened at Millrose.
Track and field is a wonderful, three-ring circus of a sport. But it requires so many officials to conduct, though certified – usually involving a half-day workshop – they are basically working for a box lunch because they love the sport and have the time and inclination to spend several hours camped out beside a track.
“The question is, are we going to run out of officials soon, because we’re not attracting enough young people to replace the officials we have now,” said one longtime west coast meet promoter.
Lovely people, mind you, but this is not how a professional operation works. Then you realize, the entire enterprise has been built upon a non-profit volunteer base. That’s one reason the word “professional” has always carried something of a negative connotation in running. As long as no one else was getting paid, fine. But once you start ponying up for one group…
Perhaps this will be the error which changes the sport. But don’t bet on it. Where would the funding come from to pay a professional organization to oversee track meets? And how many track meets would such crews have to oversee? The sport can’t pay the top 10 athletes in each discipline a living wage as it is. How are they going to afford professional officials?
It’s a tough nut to crack, and the sport is lucky to have as many dedicated volunteers as it does. But this is just another example of how difficult it is to take a sport that wasn’t created to be a professional endeavor, and turn it into one.