October 2005
IN LAST MONTH’S LETTERS TO THE EDITOR a subscriber chided me for supporting what he perceived as a plan that would rob the throws and horizontal jumps of much of their excitement by reducing the number of attempts from 6 to 4. He laid out a scenario in which Tianna Madison wouldn’t have won in Helsinki.

Similarly, a few years back Mel Watman of Athletics International recast many great Olympic battles, showing that reducing them from 6 to 4 would have taken away many of the Games’ great stories.

I insist that’s simply not the case. It’s not the sixth round that makes for magical moments, it’s the final round, whenever it is. With backs to the wall and adrenaline gushing out of every pore, athletes do marvellous things. So for every great historic moment that might have been eliminated by a just-4-attempts scenario, I say a different—but just as compelling—one would have been created.

But why change the events at all? Because even I, as a guy who prefers to think of the sport as field & track, think there’s too much insignificant action in your average field event (for the purposes of this column, from now on, “field event” doesn’t include the two vertical jumps). So while I would support a cut from 6 rounds to 4, that’s not remotely the best way to go. If you’re going to get rid of dead time, eliminate attempts by the bottom end of the order and do it earlier.

I think 12 is too many to take to the final to begin with, but since that’s the traditional number let’s use that as our base. As a suggestion, try this: each of the 12 gets 2 attempts (instead of the 3 they get now). At the end of those two rounds, 4 are cut. The remaining 8 get two more attempts, then 4 more are cut. You’ve then got a kick-ass last two rounds with just 4 contestants. But it’s the 4 best, playing musical chairs to avoid the one spot that doesn’t end up on the podium. And they’re in action about every 5 minutes instead of 10. No more sitting around waiting to cut to the chase.

Of course, at the end of each of the three cutdowns, you reverse the order so that those who performed well to begin with are rewarded. The IAAF finally recognized the value of order-switch after three rounds at the ’96 Games, and in a little-noticed move, added a second switch after round 5 at the Helsinki Congress (see p. 40).

And if you’re going to reward previous performance, then change the rules so that the order for the field finals is generated by how well you do in the qualifying round. Or, if a majority of jumpers and throwers would actually prefer to go early, and gain a psychological advantage by putting up a big one right away, then do the first two rounds in inverse order of the Q-round. After all, those in lane races can accrue an advantage by performing well in preliminary rounds. Why shouldn’t jumpers and throwers be accorded the same courtesy?

And if the IAAF is eager to improve field-event presentation, why aren’t specific windows created for the final rounds? It’s not that big a technical challenge. More on that next month.