Time for Track & Field to be a Team Sport

LOS ANGELES, Nov. 12, 2008 – The current turmoil in track & field, with worries over whether the I.A.A.F.’s finances will be impacted by a significantly lower European television rights fee, the possibility of having no after-the-Games track & field facility in London and the usual issue of doping, can be depressing.

It’s also an opportunity to reform the way the sport is presented.

If one looks at today’s spectator sports environment, it’s obvious that team sports are the most popular. Soccer, rugby, basketball and hockey are huge money-makers on most of the continents and in the U.S., baseball and American football are king. Even Formula 1 and NASCAR, which offer individual drivers competing against other drivers in individual automobiles, are talked about as “teams.”

Despite its emphasis on the individual, track & field can join these sports as a major international team game. Here’s how:

Use the obvious power of national teams in competition.

Team track & field already works at the collegiate level in the United States and there is a long history of high-quality, highly-attended dual meets between national teams such as the U.S.A.-U.S.S.R. dual meets that ran from 1958-85. But instead of a once-in-a-while dual, imagine the possibilities of an international league based on such a format, not terribly different than the wildly popular UEFA (European) Champions League in soccer!

Put three athletes from each country in each of 18 individual events, plus the 4 x 100 m and 4 x 400 m relays and score four places (as per the current rules) 5-3-2-1 and 5-3 for relays. There would be 214 points per meet available and 107 1/2 would be required to win. Each meet would be held over two days, with separate competitions for men and women.

Just like the Champions League, which features clubs rather than national teams, a full season of meets can be created by the IAAF, using regional groups for qualification and then moving toward a quarterfinal, semifinal and finals to determine the best track & field team in the world each year.

This kind of program has some obvious benefits in that it brings some continuity into a sport which currently moves from meet to meet during the summer with no clear tie between the various events. There is some cohesion among the Golden League meets, but there are only six of these events, followed by a two-day “World Athletics Final.”

Moreover, having a team-based league concept need not – as shown by the Champions League – be to the detriment of the existing meet structure. The Champions League exists concurrently with the individual national soccer leagues in Britain, France, Germany, Russia, Spain and so on. The same can be true for track & field, as the schedule can be arranged to accommodate the fairly limited (and shrinking) schedule of Golden League and Super Grand Prix meets currently held.

By creating this “national league” in track & field, the sport will also get away from the emphasis on world records. What’s important in a dual meet will be to win, not to set records. Some meets will end up being cliffhangers and will create new stars; others will be runaways . . . just as seen on Sundays in the U.S. with NFL games.

The United States will be the favorites in both genders, but the American women will have a tough time with Russia for sure and perhaps also Germany. The American men should win every year, but that sets up the possibility of an upset, especially in a road meet in Moscow or London or Rome.

Having such a schedule of national meets also helps athletes. Because each country in the league will have to field a team for perhaps a dozen or more meets per year, athletes will get greater exposure and will become more identified with their national team than a shoe company; that’s bound to help with endorsements in their home countries.

As many national track & field federations already pay their athletes a stipend or even a salary, collecting enough athletes to form a team should not be that difficult. Further, the opportunity for much better television and sponsorship revenues for the I.A.A.F. and the teams should also provide additional monies which can be paid to the participating athletes.

Way back in 1990, the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB) created its World League, using national teams in annual play. The schedule is fitted around the various national leagues in volleyball hotbeds like Brazil and Italy and the program has been an enormous boost for volleyball worldwide.

Track & field can do the same and this highest-profile Olympic sport deserves an opportunity to be showcased all year long in a season which uses the team formula that has worked wonderfully for the best-funded sports on the planet.

It’s all about the team . . . and their flag.

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