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Thursday, August 05, 2010

Duck, Duck, Goose

About two weeks ago it was announced that the Dagen Nyheter Galan, Stockholm's stop on the Diamond League tour, would get the three top-tier men's 100m sprinters--Usain Bolt, Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell--all lined up against each other for the first time in 2010.  My reaction was "It's going to happen?  Really?  Really happen?"

SI's Brian Cazanueve reflected this skepticism when he wrote "this one isn't official until all the hamstrings and egos are actually in the starting blocks".  As no doubt you already know, Asafa Powell has pulled out citing injury.

At Let's Run, it was said that Powell was the first to blink.  My reply was since he races like a wimp, it's hardly surprising that he chickened out.  This may not be fair to Powell; he could really be injured, as he'd mentioned a niggle two weeks ago.  But in professional sports, which are by definition dependent on support of the public, the truth isn't nearly as important as the perception.  We've seen athletes duck and dodge each other so many times over the years that we always suspect ego-driven motives.

Even worse is what the larger world of the sports press and sports fans think about track and field.  This kind of gamesmanship leads many to see our stars as, in the words of UK head coach Charles Van Commenee, a "bunch of pussies and wankers".  It would have been far better to announce Bolt and Gay as definite entries and Powell as a possible one.  There would have been little to no bad PR as a result of Powell's pullout.  But it wouldn't have made for splashy headlines and advance ticket sales a week ago.  The DN Galan came out a winner, but track & field came out a loser.

Let me give you another similar but different example.  Walter Dix was originally announced as running against Tyson Gay at the Monaco Diamond League meet but withdrew because he and the meet organizers could not come to terms of agreement for appearance fees.  Ato Boldon specifically called Dix out on this during the Universal Sports telecast and called him greedy.  TFN editor Garry Hill, in a rather snotty post, came to his defense and blamed meet management.  Regardless of why it happened, the fact is that he was in and then he was out.  Brett Farve (deservedly) gets scorned for this once a year, but track seems to see this kind of wavering every week.

In the short term, it's good for meet promoters to announce that this star or that star will show up even if he (or, more rarely, she) later drops out, as it leads to greater initial news coverage and ticket sales.  But for the sport as a whole, this kind of thing is very bad.  It leads to the image that track is full of prima donnas and money grubbers on all sides.  It is a big, big problem and is to our great detriment.

If it is to be stopped, then how?  Meet promoters don't suffer, at least in immediate terms.  The adidas GP in New York sold out a week ahead when people thought both Bolt and Gay were going to come.  At least in that situation it was legitimate injuries that kept them both out.  If other motives had been suspected, it would have created detrimental long-term effects toward pro track meets in New York and elsewhere, both with the press and the paying public.

For their part, athletes need to do what they can to maintain their earning potential and protect their bodies.  But again, even the iron men who never miss a meet will suffer if others play the duck-and-dodge game because track as a whole will suffer.

One way is to make it worth everyone's while to change the predominant system to late additions of stars who are initially unsure instead of late scratches.  Athletes could be forced to sit out the next Diamond League meet after a late scratch (which, in the case of real injury, they likely would do anyway).  The balance of power between workers (athletes) and management (meet organizers) could be maintained if late scratches were seriously penalized in proposed end-of-the-year evaluations of meets used to determine which of them are to retain their Diamond League status.  It would be hard to make this fly, though, and even harder to make it honest.

But another possible solution is to change the incentives system.  Track and Field News does end of the year rankings that reportedly figure heavily into many athletes' sponsorship contracts.  One of their primary criteria is a favorable win/loss record.  This exacerbates the problem, as it's usually better for a top athlete to duck a rival than to risk losing.  Their Athlete of the Year rankings also heavily reward undefeated or rarely-defeated athletes.  So when these are your only ways of ranking athletes, it simply does not pay for them to regularly face off against the best competition they can find.  While it's a fine system on its own, it does fall victim to a sort of Campbell's Law, in which athletes can manipulate it for their own short-term gain... and the whole sport's loss. 

My Superfan Rankings are similar to those from Track and Field News, with a few notable differences.  One is that they are constantly updated, rather than done at the end of the year.  More importantly, you simply cannot rank highly if you avoid the top competition.  It is better to be second or third in a tough race than to win a lesser one.

One example is Andrei Mikhnevich, the Belarussian shot putter.  Barring weird results over the next month, he'll rank #2 in the event according to Track and Field News.  In my rankings he's only #4 because he has avoided the European circuit alltogether, facing off against the best athletes just twice. 

As for Powell, he is currently #6 in the overall Athlete of the Year rankings.  But by missing tomorrow's race he will almost assuredly drop out of the top ten.  Had he run and finished third, he probably would have stayed on the leader board.

What's On
The Big Shot competition takes place in Stockholm's Kungstradgarden.  It's the lead-in for tomorrow's DN Galan meet.  Or actually, it's already taken place.  Winners were Christian Cantwell and Nadzeya Ostapchuk.  No word on who won the celebrity shot put competition.

Tomorrow the in-stadium portion of the DN Galan takes place in the Stockholms Olympiastadion.  It is one of my favorite meets of the year, because every time the camera shows the crowd I see people with my exact hair--an experience I've had only in watching old ABBA videos and paging through the IKEA catalog.  And yet I have no known Swedish or Scandinavian ancestry.
TV coverage will be at 8 PM Friday on Universal Sports, and at 2 PM Saturday on CBC
Live webcasts will begin at 2 PM Friday at and
Meet homepage
Previews from the IAAF, USATF, Let's Run, Universal Sports
Press conference highlights
Let's Run big-money star-studded Match Game, I mean prediction contest
Ato Boldon says Powell was always the third wheel
Lolo Jones (100H) focused on points standings; Emma Green (HJ) the lone Swedish star in the meet
Bolt's fancy new togs
Domestic subtext: Galen Rupp v. Chris Solinsky in the 5k

Track on TV
Gateshead Diamond League rerun, 7 PM on Universal Sports

Further reading
Runner's World Racing News has all the headlines, including a look at Maine's Beach to Beacon 10k.

Brianna Glenn (LJ) blogs about dining on the track circuit.  I recall a similar experience on my college team, where the upperclassmen basically ignored us freshmen.  Two weeks into my that first year, one of them saw me at a campus function and said "Jesse Squire, how the hell are you?" to which I replied "You know my name!"  He is still one of my very best friends.

UK news: Jessica Ennis (hep) is done competing for the season, but Phillips Idowu (TJ) is one of the rare stars committing to the Commonwealth Games.

Team USA goes to Germany for the Thorpe Cup, a team decathlon competition.

Track & Field News released its annual relay rankings, and thinks the return of Justin Gatlin (100m) was faster than it might appear.

The IAAF will assist in setting up a high-altitude training center in Uganda, including a Tartan-surfaced track.

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