January 2003

THE BEST CHRISTMAS PRESENT I get every December is knowing that we’re just a week away from a brand new track & field year. Like a little kid plunging under the tree, I can’t wait to rip off the wrapping paper and see what Santa has brought as we stand on the brink of a new season.

All track years are great, of course—like wines, there’s no such thing as a bad one; some’s just better than others—but 2003 is shaping up as a truly vintage year for the sport. This is one I can’t wait to uncork; to sip and savor during the winter and spring before quaffing in a mighty chug at summer’s end as all the important elements blossom into full fruit.

No, I don’t expect a rash of World Records (or American Records or Collegiate Records): those days are gone forever. But truly memorable years aren’t built on records alone; they’re built on the plotlines that surround them. The people; the politics; the unexpected twists and turns that make track & field the fiendishly watchable soap opera that it can be. Even if there isn’t a single WR, I know that ’03 will be high entertainment.

The plotline in the World’s Fastest Humans department should alone be worth the price of admission. In the space of little more than a month in ’02, Maurice Greene went from WR holder in the 100 to somewhere on a back shelf. What’s up with that? Then Briton Dwain Chambers became the flavor of the month before Tim Montgomery unexpectedly broke the WR. But Monty didn’t race again after his 9.78—he’s got a lot to confirm.

And what about Justin Gatlin? He turned pro early—can he run with the big dogs? He’ll work with Trevor Graham, the coach of Montgomery and Marion Jones. Oh wait, Graham’s no longer their mentor. They’ve been seen in the company of Charlie Francis, which at the same time could be both a brilliant choice for technical advice… and a public relations disaster.

Change is in the air everywhere in ’03. The whole face of the collegiate side of the sport will be turned upside down—in a positive way—by the inauguration of the new Regionals system. In theory, at least, there will be far less chasing of marks and more real competition. If you’re a fan, you’ve got to be planning on going to the Regional nearest you.

Fans also have to be considering using a week’s vacation to take in both the NCAA and USATF Championships. For the first time in some quarter of a century the meets are on consecutive weekends. And they’re being staged geographically almost on top of each other. And, coincidentally, staged in one of the nation’s greatest tourist areas. This situation can be summed up in two words: Road Trip!

Speaking of road trips, if you’re lucky enough to have an international jaunt planned for this summer, you couldn’t do any better than stopping in Zürich on your way to the World Championships in Paris, or zipping from Paris to Brussels right after the WC for the Golden League Final. Pro track at its very-very best.

A week after that, the international scene takes on a whole new look as the Grand Prix Final expands to two days and includes all events. How athletes qualify for the GPF will also be brand new. No more needing to score all your points on the regular GP Circuit. Instead, you just need to be in the upper echelons of the IAAF’s World Rankings, which include non-GP competition.

Now, about those Rankings. I keep putting off the grilling to come:

“Are they as good as T&FN’s Rankings?” Well, they’re not quite the same. “You’re evading the question: are they as good?” Well, frankly, no. They’ve got some serious flaws injected into the mix by politics. T&FN’s Rankings are politics-free, and far more flexible. “Prove it.”

OK, but that’ll be in another issue. Right now I’m busy picking up the packages, weighing them, squeezing them, shaking them for telltale rattles. Is that a World Record I feel in there? C’mon Santa, give me a hint. Whaddya mean it’s a bottle of wine—did I mix metaphors?