April 2003

IN THE RESTAURANT BUSINESS they say there are three keys to success: location, location and location. The mantra for making big-time track a success with the general sporting public is similar: presentation-presentation-presentation. To grab the hearts and minds of today’s spoiled sports fans, you’ve got to have some bells and whistles.

The first major international championships to pay any real attention to this crucial side of the sport was the ’96 Olympics in Atlanta, where music and video were skillfully blended with some discreet behind-the-scenes management of what was happening on the field of play.

Unfortunately, both the ’97 and ’99 Worlds took steps backwards. Sydney ’00 was pretty much a disaster, with incompetent announcing marring the proceedings. Fortunately, the Edmonton Worlds in ’01 were a revelation, with Britain’s Fast Track organization building on the lessons learned—both positive and negative—from the happenings of Atlanta onwards. Fast Track then got more encomiums for its handling of last year’s Commonwealth Games.

For integration of modern technology into a track setting, Fast Track’s handling of the recent World Indoor Championships in Birmingham was the best I’ve ever witnessed. We’ve certainly seen stadia with two large video boards using feeds from multiple cameras before, but this time the usage was the way not only a track fan would want it, but also a field fanatic. The views cut from event to event, from angle to angle, at just the right time. Mini-cams mounted on the standards showed slo-mo replays of virtually every important attempt in the vertical jumps.

The horizontal jumps were a revelation, employing technology that had been on my wish-list ever since the U.S. networks started superimposing the yellow first-down stripe on football fields. When you watched on-screen, there was a multicolored overlay on the sand, matching up (more or less) with the indicator board beside the pit. Talk about instant gratification! Rather than waiting for that forever period it takes to get an official measure, you could quickly estimate within a centimeter or two how long a jump was. Now if somebody can just figure out how to do that with a curved sector for the throws…

But no matter who’s in charge of presentation, and no matter how well they do it, they’re still stuck with one major problem in the field events: there’s a surplus of meaningless competition. In Birmingham, too many jumps and throws simply weren’t in the ballpark. And that was with 8-person finals; it’s far worse when outdoor finals start with a dozen combatants. Rules-makers have for years been bandying about the idea of cutting the throws and horizontal jumps from six rounds to four. I can live with that, but a far better idea would be to leave the leaders at six rounds and pare the others back. Currently, an Olympics or outdoor Worlds competition has 60 attempts. If they went to four rounds and gave all 12 finalists just 2 attempts, then the best 8 another 2, that would be 40 total. A competition that takes only two-thirds the time.

But why not do it this way, achieving the same timesaving but making the event far more competitive and certainly more suspenseful? Only take 9 to the final (if a lane race can live with 8, that’s plenty). All 9 get 2 attempts, after which the bottom 3 are eliminated. The remaining 6 (without changing competition order) get 2 more attempts, then another 3 are eliminated. So now you’ve got the top 3 identified. You can flog their final pair of attempts (with order reversed to favor the leader) as the “medal round.”

A parallel: one of the most thrilling things at any big meet is watching the four rounds of the 100, with the truly inferior competitors being shed in the heats. A few big names get unlucky in the quarterfinals, then the semis (just a couple of hours before the final) are dog-eat-dog, with a seemingly likely medalist always biting the dust. When the eight finalists reach the line, it’s a month of March Madness having been condensed into a few hours. Why not use this same line of thinking in the field events? Use a cut-down, so when the leaders are cranking out 70-foot puts, we don’t see 65-footers. You want presentation? That’s presentation.