From The Editor — January 2012: Why the IAAF’s 3-per-nation rule is surely here to stay

ARE TOO MANY DESERVING STARS denied the chance to compete in the World Championships and/or Olympic Games by the only-3-per-nation rule? That’s a question that gets asked over and over on our online forum, and also pops up frequently in letters to the editor (see p. 45 of this issue for the latest).

While I’d like to see more of the world’s top athletes in the big meets, I just don’t see it ever happening. But first-off, let’s just accept the fact that any change to the Olympics is completely off the table. That is a gathering that’s all about the brotherhood of man, etc., etc.

But what about the Worlds, where the IAAF can make the rules, unencumbered by the antediluvian-thinking IOC? Surely opening the doors to more people is an easy thing to do, right? Wrong.

Unless you were a geography major, you probably can’t identify the 212 (that’s 20 more than the United Nations has!) member nations of the IAAF. And each of them gets a vote. Even if you’re a flyspeck in the middle of some ocean—and we apologize here if we appear flyspeckist—your vote counts as much as anyone else.

So if the IAAF said, “Let’s open the WC door to everyone who meets the A-standard,” the flyspeckian reaction would be a strongly negative one. The “small nations” (and that starts after the first couple of dozen or so) get their WC pleasure not so much from winners, or medalists, or even finalists; no, from semifinalists. Or those who “almost” made the cut in the field-event qualifying. What happens if you allow the big-population nations to have unlimited entries? Their chances in each category are severely reduced. Why would anybody vote for such self-annihilation? They wouldn’t.

And there are practical considerations that go unconsidered. If you allowed all the A-standard people in the meet, regardless of number-per-nation, you would basically eliminate the B-standard people. That would wipe out many nations entirely. And before you say, “Well, make the A-standard easier,” that then means that you have to allow so many people in the meet that the number becomes unmanageable. Similarly, making the A-standard tougher also eliminates the leading lights of many countries.

In the interest of smoothing the meet/protecting the athletes the IAAF just went out of its way to eliminate the first round of the 100; a switch to letting “everybody” in would mean that even four rounds would become too bulky. And the field-event qualifying rounds would be impossible to run.

Then there’s the matter of financing monster-sized teams. Would USATF—or any other federation—really want to be funding the participation of the 20th-rated sprinter in the world just so he/she could maybe make it to the semifinals?

The biggest problem, perhaps, comes in terms of trying to sell the meet to the public. While hardcore track fans might wax orgasmic over the thought of having “all the world’s best” in the event, would the ticket-buying/TV-viewing public really be thrilled at one-nation domination (the most powerful example being the Kenyan men’s domination of the marathon, followed by the steeplechase)? I’m pretty sure the answer is no.

The only answer, I think, is more “wild cards,” based on special achievement, to add just a few more people to the meet.

© Track & Field News, 2011