Why pro runners are upset over the new Olympic standards

Cathal Dennehy
Photo credit: Dan Mullan - Getty Images

From Runner's World

On Sunday, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), track and field’s world governing body, announced a wave of big changes, including a two-tiered qualification system for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics that will see athletes get into the Games either by time or via a world ranking.

The announcement saw many athletes take to social media to criticise or share their confusion about the changes. Here’s what you need to know about the new Olympic standards, why people are upset, and how it could affect some of your favourite races and runners.

What has changed?

Before, athletes simply needed to run a qualifying standard time and secure selection from their national governing body to earn their place at the Olympic Games. But, for the first time, world rankings will now be part of the criteria for running, with the bar set much higher for those wishing to qualify via time alone.

Each event in Tokyo will also have a designated quota-lowering the number to 45 athletes in both men’s and women’s 1500-meter, 27 in each 10,000-meter race, and 80 in each marathon-with about half the places filled by athletes who achieve the new, stricter time standards. The highest athletes on world rankings will be offered the remaining places.

But the rankings are not not just based on your best time during the designated qualification period. Points are awarded on the strength of a time, with bonus points also available that vary according to the status of the meet. (For example, a Division 1 NCAA outdoor title at 1500 meters earns athletes 60 points, the equivalent of finishing 10th in a Diamond League 1500-meter race. First place gets 200 points in a Diamond League 1500.) In events up to 1500 meters, athletes’ ranking scores are calculated from their five best results across a 14-month period from May 1, 2019, to the end of June 2020. In the 5,000 meters it’s three results, and in the 10,000 meters it’s just two.

For the marathon, rankings are calculated from a runner’s two best results; one must be in a marathon, but the other can come from a half marathon, 25K, 30K, or marathon. Athletes can also qualify by finishing top-10 at the 2019 World Championships in Doha or in a World Marathon Major (Boston, New York City, Tokyo, Berlin, Chicago, or London marathons), or finish in the top five at an IAAF Gold Label Marathon, such as the Paris, Rotterdam, or Dubai marathons. The qualifying window for marathoners is longer, going from January 1, 2019, until May 31, 2020.

Why the uproar?

Athletes are used to qualifying simply by posting one strong performance, but to do so in the same way they will now have to hit a far more difficult mark. For example, the women’s Olympic 10,000-meter standard has moved from 32:15 to 31:25, with the men’s going from 28:00 to 27:28. The women’s marathon time dropped by more than 15 minutes, from 2:45 to 2:29:30, while the men’s time dropped from 2:19:00 to 2:11:30.

Runners at shorter distances were also riled up by the new qualifying standards.

“I see no fairness here to upcoming athletes,” Paul Chelimo, the American Olympic 5,000-meter silver medalist, wrote on Twitter. “Another example of how track and field is killing itself with no mercy.” Chelimo went into the 2016 Olympics with a best of 13:21.61 for 5,000 meters, just below the previous qualifying standard of 13:25 (the new standard is 13:13.50), but ended up winning silver. Under the revised structure, breakout athletes like him would potentially not secure a place at the Games.

Kate Van Buskirk, a three-time Canadian 1500-meter champion, wrote that the new system “prioritises and rewards those with political advantages of top agents/sponsors.”

This is a legitimate concern, given that athletes rely on agents to get into the best races, such as invitation-only Diamond League meets and World Marathon Majors.

Many athletes are also angry that the marathon fields have been cut for the next Olympics, a decision the IAAF made after the International Olympic Committee reduced the sport’s overall quota by 105 athletes for the Tokyo Games.

Why has the IAAF done this?

Rankings are a strong feature in many individual sports like tennis and golf, where the world No. 1 is held in high esteem (e.g., Simona Halep is the top female tennis player in the world right now). The new system is trying to give rankings similar importance in track and field and make them an equal method of qualifying.

Track and field struggles for exposure outside of the Olympics, with many top athletes preferring low-level races to prepare for major championships-this also allows them to avoid their main competition until the big event. But if the ranking system becomes a higher priority, the hope is that the biggest names in the sport will face off more regularly, creating a more attractive racing circuit.

The new system is also aimed at putting a stop to suspicious qualifying marks. With so many meets around the world, it’s impossible to ensure every qualifying performance is legitimate. The rankings system encourages athletes to post their times at higher-level meets where both officiating and drug-testing are better regulated.

So, is all this good or bad for the sport?

For athletes on the fringes of Olympic qualification, the system is bad if they’re the kind who produces one big performance at a lower-level meet, but good if they’re consistent and unafraid to venture far and wide in search of higher-level races.

When the rankings are better understood and eventually used as the main qualifying method for global championships, they should encourage more head-to-head competition on the sport’s professional circuit. That’s definitely a good thing.

What else changed this week?

In a bid to attract new audiences to the sport, the IAAF announced an overhaul of the Diamond League, the sport’s top-tier professional circuit. Fans of distance running were furious after the 5,000 meters was cut. Also, there will now be 12 meets instead of 14, with the length of each broadcast cut from two hours to 90 minutes.

“Change is never easy,” IAAF President Sebastian Coe said. “But wherever possible it needs to be made from a position of strength.”

U.S. Olympian Molly Huddle took to Twitter to voice her disapproval. “Not a fan of dropping the 5,000,” she wrote. “If [the IAAF] won’t convey its interest to public, why not cut from TV only. It remains championship event so 5/10,000m athletes will need to race it.”

Team GB 5000m runner Eilish Mccolgan also shared her opinion at the change, writing: " In athletics we have such a massive disconnect between elite distance running and the millions of people who love to race Park Runs, 10K and marathons. We need to engage those people and get them tuning in to watch the events that they love to run!"

Team GB sprinter, Dina Asher-Smith didn't comment, but shared a comical meme about qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics:

The overall number of events on the Diamond League circuit will be reduced from 32 to 24, with more field events held in downtown venues in host cities. While the eight culled events can still be held at Diamond League meetings, they will not be part of the TV broadcast. Given the lack of air time, sponsors will be far less likely to invest in such athletes, meaning their livelihoods will inevitably be put at risk.