The IAAF’s new Rankings: Is it a good idea?

On Friday 3rd November the IAAF announced a new official rankings system that will be used as a qualification system for the 2019 World Championships in Doha and the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.  The rankings system will be based on performances throughout the year where athletes will be given points using a number of factors and this will determine the rankings.  This will replace the use of qualifying standards that have basically been used forever.  This is a concept that European Athletics have spoken about a few years ago but had not actually implemented but presumably will now follow suit with the IAAF.  So is this new system and ‘fundamental change’ actually a good idea?  Only a few details are known at this time but let’s look at the possible implications.

WHY HAS IT CHANGED?

So why change this several decade old use of entry standards?  Presumably it’s to make every performance ‘mean something’ and to encourage the ‘bigger’ names to compete more often.  Before, theoretically, there wasn’t that much incentive to perform particularly often as a means to qualify for major championships as the focus would be to ‘peak’ for trials and then for the major championships.  The idea seems to be that in order to make sure you qualify for these championships, you need to compete often enough in high level meets to make sure you are eligible.

I assume that the maximum of 3 athletes per nation rule (excluding wildcards) will still be in play which makes me wonder, does it actually make much difference?  For example in 2016, Kenni Harrison was the undoubted number 1 sprint hurdler in the world.  All-athletics.com (who are working with the IAAF on this new system) had her ranked number 1 in the world that year.  Most will know that at the US Olympic trials that year she finished outside the top 3 and wasn’t at the Olympics despite being the new World record holder and there is no wildcard scenario for world record holders.  So now in this new system she could be ranked number 1, go to the US trials, come 4th and not qualify.  So exactly the same as it is now then.

You could argue that the above is only one specific example but I guess the point I am trying to make that if you continue with the 3 per nation rule (and by the way I am not arguing that this rule should no longer exist) then what’s the point of a new ranking system where in some events the vast majority of the top 20 or 30 won’t be picked because they are from a country where they have way more than 3 eligible people to pick from.  How is that any different from now?  Am I assuming that US women competing in the 100 metre hurdles will continue to dominate world lists?  Well yes but bearing in mind in numerous Diamond League meets there were at times 7 or 8 Americans in the line-up then it’s not that much of a strength but there are other examples such as American and Jamaican sprinters or Kenyan and Ethiopian distance runners which has been the case for many, many years now.

HOW WOULD IT AFFECT NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIPS

So a question that we can’t answer yet is how will this whole thing actually work?  In the last couple of years the IAAF have had entry target numbers for each event, for example the men’s 100 metres has had an entry target of 56.  So my question therefore is how high do you need to rank (or maybe how many points do you need) in order to be eligible to be selected by your national federation?  In the men’s 100 metres there would be several Americans, Jamaicans so using the 3 athlete per nation rule means that many who are ranked outside the world’s top 56 would find themselves inside and perhaps quite comfortably inside so would eligibility by ranking in this system take this into consideration?  It doesn’t seem to make sense to say be ranked in the top 56 and you are eligible bearing in mind how this can change and how some events are dominated by a few countries.

Taking British Athletics as an example, currently you go to the trials and if you have done the standard at least twice and if you finish in the top 2 you are automatically in.  Are we now saying if you are highly ranked globally enough and you finish in the top 2 you will be selected automatically?  As mentioned until the actual details are announced some time in 2018, these are all impossible to answer.

INJURIES COULD HAVE EVEN MORE IMPACT?

One thing that also springs to mind is that injuries can be even more problematic that they already are.  Take the example of Dina Asher-Smith from last year.  A broken foot in February meant that she didn’t start her outdoor season until the British Championships.  Her selection was, at the time, based on the fact that she was the reigning European Champion with Area Champions deemed to have the qualifying standard.

With the new system an injury like hers would presumably massively damage your chances of making the championships as you would not have much time to get a sufficient ranking.  Worse, it may make it more likely that athletes returning from injuries may come back sooner than they should out of fear for not qualifying and increasing the chance of further injury.  My hope is that these rankings favour quality over quantity.  Surely someone who has only competed 3 or 4 times but at a very high level is more worthy at being at an Olympics than someone who has performed ok but has competed 15 or 16 times.  Furthermore fans and the general audience would want to see the very best athletes in the most important events.

Having said all this, if the higher class meets (where reputation will obviously help get invites) give you significantly higher ranking points than other meets then maybe only a few Diamond League appearances could be enough, it depends on how all the various meets are weighted against each other.

SO IS IT A GOOD IDEA?

My initial reaction to this new system was that it was not a great idea.  The reality of all this, is that whether it is a good idea or not depends on how they actually do it.  In many ways I’m not sure it will really change things that much, as long as it comes down to National Championships (which they should) then all it might change is the eligibility to qualify which will seem to depend on regular competition and performances rather than achieving a standard on one occasion.  It is difficult to come up with a ranking system similar to what has been announced which is 100% objective if not impossible.  For example is a 9.80 seconds 100 metres in a low key meet against an uncompetitive field ‘worth’ more than a 10.00 win in a strong diamond league meet?  Should it be less?  Come the World Championships or the Olympics the 9.80 will be talked about way more than the DL victory in 10.00 seconds.  Overall, I feel this is an unnecessary change and it’s the actual structure and timing of the athletics season which needs to be addressed rather than how athletes are ranked and how the qualify for major championships.  Moreover, is this any easier to follow?  To me it sounds more complicated compared to the actually quite simple method we have now (although made more complicated by certain countries).

Having said that we have to see what the system actually is.  It will come into play in 2018 but won’t really affect anything until 2019 so we can at least see how theoretically work next year.

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