Too much of a good thing?

Back in the days of the Cold War, the Russians, in their conglomerate nom de guerre of the Soviet Union, were big on secrets. It was de rigueur in the Spy Vs. Spy world of international espionage that throttled the planet in those dark decades, since the less your enemy knew, the greater the advantage and element of surprise you held in your hand.
Now, the Berlin Wall is down, the U.S.S.R. is nothing more than part of a Beatles song title, and détente and its resultant openness seems to rule interactions between Mother Russia and the rest of the world, particularly the United States. Except, it seems, when it comes to track meets.
WorldChampLogoIn case you missed it, the IAAF World Championships of Athletics (track and field to we Americans) are being held this week in Moscow, in the very stadium where athletes from America (and many of its allies) were prevented from competing by the boycott of the Olympic Games of 1980. And if you have been missing it, don’t blame yourself: this might be the worst-publicized World Championships since the meet began three decades ago in Helsinki, in part as a response to those very Olympics, as a mean of providing a less politicized venue for track and field athletes to compete without the attendant jingoistic baggage the multi-sport Games entailed.
And indeed, those first World Championships proved to be everything it had been hoped they would. There was a week of spectacular competition, with every nation participating, something the preceding and following Olympics would not be able to boast. There was the first major women’s marathon championship, with Grete Waitz proving she was the master of that distance; Mary Decker’s teeth-gritting double victories over the Soviet women in the 1,500 and 3,000 meters; and the athletic coming out party for Carl Lewis, who would simultaneously enthrall and infuriate fans with his pursuit of four gold medals in the Los Angeles Games the following year.
For a few quadrennia this setup proved ideal, giving athletes an Olympic-level dress and stress rehearsal a year before the Games themselves while at the same time whetting the appetite of track and field fans and introducing them to rising stars who might become faces on a Wheaties box the following year.
Alas, the IAAF, only a narrow second to the International Olympic Committee in avarice and short sightedness, ignored the dictum that less can often be more and in 1991 changed the meet to a biennial event, scheduled for the year after the Olympics as well as before.
While this might have resulted in twice as much money for the IAAF, it had the unintended effect of splitting the importance of and interest in the meet in half.
Part of the allure of the Olympics, and those first World Championships, is the length of time between editions. For many athletes, it is a once in a lifetime opportunity; a pulled hamstring, a sinus infection or a case of food poisoning, or simply bad luck, like being tripped in a race or no-heighting in a jumping event, and a lifetime of training and sacrifice came crashing down. The increase in frequency of the World Championships provided medal opportunities three out of four years of an Olympiad, transforming hard luck competitors from a semi-tragic figures to the track and field equivalents of the old “wait ’til next year” baseball Bums of Brooklyn.
Just as the practice of awarding medals in youth sports for anything just slightly beyond showing up with your shoes tied and uniform on straight has completely debased their value, the proliferation of World Champions has had a similar effect. And as world records become increasingly hard to achieve in the rarified stratosphere into which they’ve been elevated, there’s precious little left to pique the interest of any but the most dedicated and desperate fan of the sport. Essentially, this edition of the World Championships might provide the answer to the hypothetical question, “What if they gave a meet and nobody cared?”
If that’s truly the case, perhaps the Russians have the right idea after all. Let’s keep these World Championships on the down low, and maybe no one will notice them. And once they’re over, we can begin looking forward to the next Olympics, which, as diluted as they’ve become with events that barely qualify as sports, are still at least somewhat rare from a temporal standpoint.


4 thoughts on “Too much of a good thing?

  1. Well considered, well written, well received. Thanks, Jim. One stll gets the impression after all these years that money changing hands under the table is how decisions are made in this sport.

    • That was almost certainly the case in setting the start time for the women’s marathon at 2 pm in the midst of a Moscow summer – apparently Japanese TV wanted it for prime time there, and money talked and many of the runners wound up walking. Sad, but true.

  2. Wow I’ve learned a lot today. I do remember always watching whatever I could in those early years. Politics should never be involved when it comes to competing to see who is the best in the world.

  3. Why don’t they go back to an olympics that is track and field? Track and field is an international sport. What the hell is ribbon waving and catching a ball under your neck? How many people in the world do this or are even aware of it? Have a separarte olympics for all of this stuff.

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