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Friday, July 09, 2010

Rethinking the World Cup

Are you excited about the World Cup? No, not that one. This is a track blog. I mean the IAAF World Cup. No? Not all geeked up? Well, that's you and six billion other people.

I guess these days they call it the Continental Cup. It used to be a weird hybrid of three national teams and all-star teams from five continents. Now it's just teams from four continents, and no one seems to care about it. When the press frets over various stars saying they'll skip the Commonwealth Games, it doesn't even merit a mention that they're highly unlikely to compete in the Continents Cup.

The IAAF first came up with this in 1977, and it was decently popular for an iteration or two. But that predated the World Championships, which has effectively made this competition a pointless off-year exercise. The IAAF still wants to put on some kind of global team-oriented competition, but goes about it the wrong way.

FIFA's World Cup, on the other hand, is the single most-popular sporting event on the planet (provided that you accept the Summer Olympics as a collection of many sporting events). This is tightly tied to national pride, but not the kind we know of here in the USA. Only 16% of FIFA's member nations even qualify, of which maybe a quarter have any real hope of winning the thing. For small nations, just seeing their countrymen compete on the biggest stage is a thrill in itself. This is where the IAAF World Cup fails, because there never were any small nations competing (and now there aren't any national teams at all). This is not to say we can't have meaningful team competition in track in which small countries have a fighting chance against bigger ones. It just has to be different, and we need not reinvent the wheel.

Rather than the dismal failure of a meet we've got, let's instead look at a wild success, the single best-attended annual track meet on the planet: the Penn Relays. What if we replaced the Continents Cup with a two-day national team relay carnival? I can tell you right now, I'd be enthralled.

In the usual lineup of American relays (4x100, 4x200, 4x400, 4x800, 4x1500, sprint and distance medleys, shuttle hurdles) a field of eight teams in each could be selected. This would give a wide variety of nations the ability to be represented. Dozens of different countries would have their moment on the track, competing in true team competition.

In the men's sprint medley, for example, I would imagine the invited teams would be Brazil, Cuba, Great Britain, Kenya, Russia, South Africa, Sudan, and the USA (provided all their stars could be brought on board). Great half-milers like David Rudisha, Abubaker Kaki and Mbulaeni Mulaudzi would be spotted huge deficits and have to run near all-out for the medals. The USA would doubtlessly give Nick Symmonds the lead and, for once, he'd play the role of the hunted rather than the hunter. It would be fantastically entertaining. And that's just this one relay. Imagine a Kenya-Ethiopia-USA battle in the women's 4x1500, or seeing Usain Bolt really unwind in the 4x200.

I'd add another dimension by including field events. Team competition in field events is rather common in high schools (around here at least), where each team gets three athletes and marks are totaled. In the men's javelin we could see a spirited competition between the Czechs, Finns, Latvians, Russians, Ukrainians, Greeks and Americans. Split the field into three flights, with one athlete from each nation, and the final-round stars would have to struggle for every last centimeter to put their team onto the medal stand.

Another idea would be to have an ekiden (road race relay) in the morning of each day, which could easily accomodate more than just eight national teams. The local population could be involved by having a 5k or 10k race that same morning, finishing at the stadium, so that the post-race party would have the ekiden on the stadium's video screen and participants could watch the finish on the track. If it were planned well, the early portion of the ekiden could share the road with the late part of the "people's race" for some small distance so that ordinary road runners could get an idea of just how fast the pros are.

Besides being a very interesting competition, it would be a significantly smaller operation than the rest of the IAAF's World Series events.  It could be held in places that might otherwise never be able to host a big international championship.  Like, say, the USA.  It would be a very big deal in New York, and in Eugene it would be bigger than the Pope and the Queen of England and Elvis all rolled into one.

I don't think the question is whether or not you'd pay to see a meet like this, but how much you'd pay and how far you'd travel.  I'm not sure I'm going to watch the Continents Cup even if any coverage is live and free.  Relays are where it's at, the kind of thing that even gets casual fans fired up.

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