From The Editor — The IAAF Rankings Run Into A Roadblock

I don’t think we’ve ever seen an IAAF initiative stumble as badly as its ongoing attempt to use a rankings system as the main method of qualifying for the World Championships/Olympic Games. I find myself wondering if they aren’t looking for a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist?

More than a year ago, an IAAF press release regarding qualifying for Doha ’19 and Tokyo ’20 quoted Seb Coe: “The IAAF world rankings, which will come into operation in 2018, will drive and shape the global competition system including entry into the World Championships and Olympic Games. For the first time in the sport’s history, athletes, media and fans will have a clear understanding of the hierarchy of competitions from national through to area and up to global events, allowing them to follow a logical season-long path to the pinnacle of athletics’ top two competitions.”

Well, it’s almost 2019, and while a test version of the rankings has been running for months, the system has yet to become the law of the land. As noted in Last Lap in the October issue, NACAC (the umbrella organization of North American, Central American and Caribbean nations) came out against the system. And this month’s Last Lap first brought the news that the athlete-agent organization, AAM, was also a no, saying that the athletes hadn’t had enough input into the process. Realizing it was playing with a losing hand, the IAAF decided to postpone implementation of the new system and utilize the traditional qualifying standards system to fill next year’s World Championships field.

Can any amount of tinkering with the proposed system turn it into an acceptable tool for achieving Q status?

But can any amount of tinkering with the proposed system turn it into an acceptable tool for achieving Q status? I fear it cannot. (You can find the official many-page explanation of the current system here). Those hardcore fans who post on the T&FN message boards certainly haven’t been impressed. The poster who goes by MJR summed up the proposal with this biting comment: “One more shining example of making this sport so convoluted that even the ardent fans throw up their arms and say screw it…”

Color me as one who is less troubled by the complexity of the rankings than by the underlying assumptions that were made in creating the algorithms that drive them.

Ever since our World Rankings hit the ground by analyzing the ’47 season we’ve been using a 3-part set of criteria. In descending order of importance, those are honors won, win-loss records & sequence of marks. The early creators of the Rankings (first Cordner Nelson, then the tandem of R.L. Quercetani & Don Potts) realized that marks should be by far the least important leg of the stool.

The IAAF rankings place great importance on marks but that’s not the only place where we think they’ve gotten it wrong. Monaco’s calculations place meets in various categories, and the higher-rated the category, the more points that are assigned.

Sounds logical on the surface, but not everybody agrees with the ordering. But even worse is the assumption that all meets within a category are equal. Does anybody really think that the U.S. Olympic Trials are the same as the national championships of (fill in any tiny country you can think of)? They’re both Category A meets, and no, A isn’t the top. It’s only the sixth most important. But even if they invented multiple categories for different power nations you’d still have a system that assumes that all nationals are of the same caliber across all the events, which of course they’re not. One can even posit that because of the 3-per-nation stricture in the Olympics that the U.S. Olympic Trials women’s 100H, for example, could end up having a better field than the Olympics proper.

The IAAF system also allows points to be scored in “similar” events, meaning that the indoor 50, 55 & 60 can count towards someone’s 100 score. The 60 and the 100 may represent the ultimate expression of speed indoors and out, but they’re not remotely the same event. Similarly, 300s and 500s shouldn’t be part of the 400’s equation and 600s and 1000s shouldn’t be part of the 800’s. Yet they are.

For a specific example of how flawed the proposed system is, let’s look at the case of Michael Norman. Norman won the NCAA at 43.61 and gets 1338 points for it. Meanwhile, Matthew Hudson-Smith won the Euros at 44.78 and gets 1365. Indoors, Norman set a World Record 44.52 at the NCAA and gets 1302. Conversely, Óscar Husillos ran 45.86 at the Madrid meet and gets 1323. To me, that’s a classic case of GIGO (the computing term for “garbage in, garbage out”). I don’t think the marks should be in major play in the first place, but if they are, they shouldn’t generate results like this.

The IAAF system, perhaps rightfully so, is also going to make it harder for meets to qualify at all. If you look at Caster Semenya, she’s one of the year’s best 400 runners, but her IAAF score doesn’t include her 49.96 to win the African Championships. Indeed, there are no marks from that meet in the system at all. Apparently there might have been some technical difficulties with the track. How many other meets are going to find they don’t come up to snuff? Rooting out “fake” marks is a noble goal, but things like the African Champs situation should be determined beforehand, not after the fact.

Many people have asked me if T&FN feels its Rankings are threatened by the IAAF’s foray into the field. The answer is absolutely not, because we’re trying to do two different things. The IAAF is eager to have an ongoing system that provides what it feels is an improved big-championships qualifying system and provides ongoing standings. Perhaps it should consider keeping the old qualifying-standard system for meet entry and keep its rankings (with some needed tweaking, of course) just for ongoing relative status. I suspect athletes and their agents would be happy with the second part of the equation.

T&FN, as always, is seeking to quantify a single calendar year. And you need wait only a month to see World Rankings edition No. 72, in the December issue! □

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