After the first year of the Diamond League I wrote some very simple suggestions to improve the league as a whole, such as a consistent day on the sports calendar or more head-to-head matchups. Track and Field News again wrote about the need for the latter point this month. But now it is time to talk about how the field events can be improved in the series.
Patrick Magyar is the most powerful track and field figure in Switzerland and one of the most connected worldwide. As the director of the Weltklasse Zurich meet and CEO for the recent European Championships, he helps guide the sport in Switzerland. He also is working on the international level as the vice chairman of the Diamond League. He puts together a good meet, I’ll give him that, but I must say I do not feel entirely safe if the future of the sport is in his hands. Speaking to the German magazine Leichtathletik last week, Magyar didn’t hold back his thoughts on the future of athletics:
Long qualifications, competition procedures, complicated events – how do we want to have athletics in future? Must all events be held? We cannot avoid discussions about deleting some elements.
This is not his first time saying this, as he questioned the future of the discus and walking events back in a 2010 interview. Michael Johnson has said the same. Discussion by others at a recent Euro Meeting conference was along these lines too. Magyar is right that we need to talk about how to grow the sport by improving its presentation. In some respects the sport is actually quite healthy. Thanks to the internet, now a fan is able to watch and follow track and field as never before. Track fans are more energized than ever. But it is also clear that the mainstream appeal of track and field is in decline. How do we bring that energy to the masses?
I don’t have the answers, but I know that Magyar’s idea to cut events is not the solution. What track and field needs is more stars like Usain Bolt and Mo Farah. No other major sport relies on so few stars. Making a star takes a combination of results, personality, and publicity. Athletes must bring the first two, and the sport has to help with the last one. The big meets in the sport are the chance for us to highlight the current stars and the budding stars, but too often the focus is only on just one or two people.This year Weltklasse did a great job of building on the European Championships to try and create a new local star in hurdler Kariem Hussein. In the first event of the televised portion of the meet he went out strong, led through most of the race, and ran a personal best. But much of the rest of the meet failed to deliver and reverted to trying to bank on old stars. The pre-meet publicity, for example, was focused on Usain Bolt and he didn’t even start. Without good storylines, viewers inevitably focused on the 100 meters which featured three former dopers and controversy about why a fourth was not invited. Meanwhile a thrilling javelin competition was going on at the same time and most people watching on television were not able to see young Thomas Röhler make a breakthrough. Or see the youngest Olympic javelin champion ever, Kershorn Walcott, break his national record to close in on Röhler. The mainstream public surely cannot name Röhler or Walcott, but this illustrates a problem in presentation, not a problem with their events. They are stars in the making in one of the sport’s most traditional events but no one gives them space to shine.
Obviously my perspective is biased towards the hammer throw. But rightfully so. There is nothing inherently unentertaining about the hammer throw, or any field event for that matter. If anything they are more exciting than that dull 100-meter race at Weltklasse. At the European Championships the battle between Kristzian Pars and Pawel Fajdek was a suspenseful competition that ended in a world lead and the high point of the day for many in the stadium. Anita Wlodarzcyk challenging the world record in a torrential downpour was just as impressive. As the IAAF put it, last week Fajdek even stole the show from Bolt in Poland where a 100m track and hammer ring were built at an indoor football stadium. The hammer was again the highlight in front of 50,000 fans at the ISTAF Berlin meet on Sunday as Anita Wlodarczyk threw a new world record. Even at the local level meets like the little Fränkisch-Crumbach hammer meet in Germany prove to me that the hammer can be appreciated by a mainstream audience. The hammer throw is currently marginalized, but our situation could be realized by any event if we start downsizing track and field.
I realize not every event can be conducted in one evening, and what we have now clearly is not working and has become a mess, as Toni Reavis thoughtfully pointed out last week. But that doesn’t mean we need to kick some events out of our sport. The quickest way to lose weight might be to chop your arm off, but that obviously defeats the normal purpose of losing weight. The better way is to lean down overall. It’s more work, but it’s healthier and will look better in the end. Plus it keeps the character of the sport intact. The diversity of events is what makes track and field so amazing and stars can emerge from any country, background, body type, or skill set. The European Athletics Permit meets show that even without all events at each meet, everyone can be included in the sport.
It’s clear that some change is needed, but so far its been in the wrong direction. For example, even though they have practically rid the sport of hammer, it certainly hasn’t helped the Diamond League become more entertaining. Magyar himself asked some good questions in another interview last week, such as whether it’s good that the long jump winner could be decided in the first round. That’s a great question and we need more of them. Losing more events, on the other hand, would just make things worse as it could be getting rid of the next athlete that can help this sport grow. These meets are our chance for the sport to pick its stars, but when the pool of athletes is already limited, then it is no wonder there are so few stars. Let’s have the discussion on how to grow the sport, but let’s also think outside the box.
I normally try to keep my posts here positive about the hammer throw and the future of our sport. We have a great event that is loved by many and one of my biggest aims on this page is to keep writing about it so more people can discover it. My favorite thing to do is highlight successful meets so that meet directors and sponsors can reap the benefits of their investment in the hammer throw. But every once in a while I have to stop and draw people’s attention to some of the injustices in the world of hammer throwing. Let’s be clear, the hammer throw faces a chicken and egg problem: are we excluded from so many competitions because we aren’t as popular, or are we not popular because we have been excluded from competitions? Answering that question is futile since the real solution simply lies in looking forward and bringing more attention to our sport. We have to push for the hammer throw and let those in power know that we will not just roll over if we continue to be excluded. I mentioned a small concern of mine earlier this week and there has already been progress on that front. But the biggest injustice for the hammer throw is the Diamond League.
In case you aren’t aware, the Diamond League was first announced in 2009 as the future of the sport’s prestigious and lucrative one-day meets. It was an ambitious plan to include all of the track and field events … except the hammer throw. The makeshift IAAF Hammer Challenge was set up with many meets that already supported the hammer, but that “solution” has turned from bad to worse over the first two years of the Diamond League despite the efforts of some supportive meet directors. In the meantime, the Diamond League continues to exclude the hammer throw and virtually no progress has been made on that front (except the news that the Prefontaine Classic will host the women’s hammer as an exhibition event for the second time in three years). Unfortunately it is the only Diamond League meeting to do so.
My criticisms of the Diamond League’s decision have not changed over the past three years (you can read my original post here) and there is no need to rehash them now as Kathrin Klaas put together an even better analysis this winter. The burden still rests on the Diamond League to explain why they have excluded the hammer throw. After three years they have yet to do so. And we are prepared to refute every one of their claims. The hammer is a safe and exciting sport. Including it in the Diamond League will improve track and field. And after years of talking, Kathrin finally was able to get some of the right people to listen. Kathrin’s activism recently received the official support of the German federation and Prof. Dr. Helmut Digel, the former president of the German federation and a member of the IAAF Council since 1995. After a roundtable discussion organized last week, she is now preparing a thesis paper that will be submitted to IAAF President Lamine Diack.
So what do we do now? Continue to keep the topic public. The more we discuss it in public, the better. Talk about it, share this post, share Kathrin’s posts, “like” her new project Wir Sind Hammer (a play on words meaning both “we are hammer” and “we are awesome”). But most of all make sure the athletics community knows that this problem exists and it will not go away. As with the USATF issue, both sides can benefit with the right solution.
I had mixed feelings when the U.S. Olympic Trials organizing committee officially announced its plan for “Hammer Time” last October. Moving the Olympic Trials hammer throw competition from Eugene up to the Portland area could very well highlight the event, but without the right support it also means that the hammer could further vanish into obscurity.
Over the past few days I have had a few more thoughts on the Athletics Weekly article I posted earlier this week. One thing I edited out of the article was a section on why both of the events I featured happened to take place in the same country. Neither had any huge local star to showcase, and Sweden doesn’t even have a particularly strong throwing tradition when compared to nearby Finland and Germany. Everyone I interviewed attributed it to the Swedish way of thinking, whatever that is. No matter what the cause, I find it interesting that the event was such a success despite the fact that only a handful of the fans could likely name even one of the stars. This proves to me the throwing events can appeal to almost anyone if they are packaged the right way.
Last week I published my second article on the throwing events in the UK publication Athletics Weekly. It focuses on the Karlstad Grand Prix event I featured last August and some of the innovative shot put formats I have mentioned before. Athletics Weekly is the best track and field print publication in the world and they have been a great supporter of the throwing events by publishing articles such as this one. Their magazine combines all the great analysis and insight you often see in Track and Field News with original coaching articles and in-depth profiles. In addition, it is much more timely since it arrives weekly. I subscribe to their great iPad app which lets me view each issue as soon as it comes out without waiting for international shipping. They have been kind enough to let me post the article here for non-subscribers, and a PDF version with the print layout is available after the text.
As I wrote last year, the throwing events need to be imaginative and think outside of the box in order to gain in popularity. This is easier with the shot put since it can be hosted anywhere there is a small slab of concrete. The hammer throw can be more difficult since it requires a big cage and ample landing area. Simply put, while they can host the shot put inside Zürich’s main train station, that would never work with the hammer or discus throws.
World discus throw champion Robert Harting is always one to grab headlines and this April he announced that he would love to have a discus throw competition over the Spree river in Berlin. That never materialized, but the Swedes did one better yesterday. As a prelude to today’s Karlstad Grand Prix, the city hosted a hammer throw competition on the banks of the Klarälven river. And by banks, I mean the opposite banks. They installed a hammer throw ring on one side of the river and attempted to throw to the other side. Fans surrounded the cage and lined up on the bridge to watch.
When the IAAF announced the new IAAF Hammer Throw Challenge last November, I was skeptical. My mindset was already biased and bitter because the hammer throw was not included in the Diamond League, but hearing about the new Hammer Challenge only made me feel worse about the future of the event. I felt like someone was selling me dirt and calling it a diamond.
The initial announcement for the Diamond League six months earlier had the opposite effect. I was excited. The Golden League often held only one, if any, throwing events. The Diamond League, on the other hand, offered more opportunities for the throwers. In the initial press release, IAAF President Lamine Diack even said, “It is great for me to be able to announce that all events* of our sport will be touring around the world.” But, as I read on, I realized that ‘all’ did not mean all since an asterisk had been inserted into his quote. That’s the first time I’d ever seen an asterisk inserted into a quote from a press release before. As I scrolled down I was informed that that Diamond League was very distressed that they could not include the hammer throw in this new series due to ambiguous “infrastructure” reasons which have yet to be clarified in the last 18 months. However, the IAAF promised a new hammer throw challenge to help compensate the hammer throwers for being kicked out of the inner circle. Maybe, I thought, things would turn out okay. After details of the Hammer Challenge finally emerged in February, it became clear that we had been screwed.
What actually hurt the most was that the IAAF tried to spin it as a gift to our sport with a headline reading, “IAAF throws weight behind Hammer discipline with $202,000 purse.” That is indeed a large amount of money, but it isn’t any more than the hammer throwers were receiving under the old system. Rather than “throwing its weight” behind the hammer throw, the IAAF was pushing it to the periphery of the sport as the other throwing events got promoted to the big leagues.
To get into the details, the new series did not really create any new opportunities for hammer throwers. Most of the meets included in the “hammer challenge” had already hosted the hammer throw in previous years. And, to make matters worse, not only was the hammer throw relegated to the second tier meets, but it was by far the worst paid event at the second tier meets. For instance at the Zagreb meeting the winners of every international event earned $4,000 to $5,500, except the hammer throw which took home just $2,000. This was the case at every meet. While there was a year-end jackpot to supplement this, previous years allowed athletes to earn just as much money at the World Athletics Final.
In addition, if you were a spectator at any of the hammer challenge meets, you would not have even noticed it existed. No effort was made to market the series and the events were contested before the international program and television coverage began at the meets. I spoke with Libor Charfreitag, the current European Champion, and he felt the event did not get the respect it deserved. “It is actually pretty hard to tell if it was any different from previous years. I would say that overall it was worse … When it comes to each individual meet, we were definitely WORSE OFF … The winner of hammer throw was always the most under-appreciated athlete at the meet! Is this fair? Not only hammer throw was excluded from the Diamond League with no real or persuasive reason, BUT we received no to very little compensation for being kicked out!” [Emphasis added.]
Of anyone, I would think Charfreitag might be happy with the current system. He placed third in the series, entitling him to a $14,000 bonus. Including his prize money from each meet, he earned $19,200 from the series. But, that is barely enough to pay the bills for the season considering the seven meets on the circuit represent virtually the only money making opportunities for a hammer thrower. To put this in perspective, the winner of each Diamond League meet in the discus (or any other event) took home $10,000 and top high jumpers are complaining that this isn’t enough for them to make a living. In addition, being in the Diamond League exposes the athletes to more fans, making them more attractive to sponsors.
But matters get worse. Charfreitag is at the top of the food chain. My training partner Sultana Frizell fared worse this year under the new Hammer Challenge. Despite placing 10th at last year’s world championships and breaking her own Canadian record this May, she was only invited to two of the seven Hammer Challenge competitions. Most of the meets featured the same 4 or 5 top athletes mixed in with some local talent. Anyone outside of that pool had to sit on the sidelines. To make matters worse, the meets were spread out over four continents and six months. The final standings were based on each athlete’s three best results and Sultana still placed 12th with just two meets. However, she wasn’t awarded the twelfth place prize since she did not have the requisite number of meets. This is one of the world’s best athletes, and she barely received any money from this series. In talking with her, she earned more last year under the old system and much of her prize money this year came from a non-Hammer Challenge meet: the Prefontaine Classic. And it all continues to trickle down. Without opportunities at the top meets, Sultana seeks out opportunities at lower paying meets, pushing athletes at my level out of the picture all together.
I asked Libor if he has any suggestions for improving the series and his reply was short and simple: “YES! One and only- make hammer throw part of the Diamond League!!!” He’s right. If the IAAF wanted to support the event, it would have tried to include it in the Diamond League with every other event. In the alternative, they could have created a hammer challenge that at least paid the athletes comparably and highlighted the event. Instead, they did neither and never even gave a reason for their decision.
Libor mentioned to me that if the meets are looking for publicity, records, and fans, the hammer throw is the perfect event. Only one women’s event had a new world record this year: the women’s hammer throw. But rather than being thrown in front of the world, it was thrown at a small meet in Bydgoszcz, Poland. The free publicity that comes with a world record was lost because of this. The women’s hammer is a young event that is ripe for attention, but isn’t even given the opportunity to shine. Hopefully the IAAF and the Diamond League will come to their senses before the hammer throw drifts off into further obscurity and another opportunity is lost for track and field.
As the first year of the Diamond League drew to a close last weekend, reviews and commentary are beginning to pop up online. The comments so far, however, have focused mostly on whether or not the series has been good for the athletes. I think that’s a fairly simple question to answer: it tends to be better for some of the minor events and worse for the top events. The shot putters I’ve talked to have loved the series. The event was rarely included in the Diamond League in the past decade, but this year they have been included in a high-profile meets getting the athletes both more exposure and more money. Other events have seen a decline in competitions and earnings. Because more events have been included, appearance fees have become rare in order to pay for the extra events (except for the select few Diamond League Ambassadors). A Twitter exchange between sprint star turned TV announcer Ato Boldon, high jumper Jamie Nieto, and sprint Lisa Barber concluded with Nieto saying “The Diamond League is making it real hard to make a living. Something has got to change.” The split program concept, where meets alternate hosting certain events, also means less meets for 100m runners and stars from events that used to be included in every meet. Sprinter Carmelita Jeter told Spikes Magazine that “This year I had about 40 to 50% less races, because of the split programme concept.” (By my count, she’s only done 13 meets outdoors this year versus 23 last year). This also hurts mid-level athletes, since some of the top athletes are now entering mid-level meets to fill the gaps in their schedule, which is leaving the mid-level athletes with fewer chances to compete.
So, to summarize, some athletes win and some lose. And that doesn’t even mention the hammer throw, which was excluded from the series all together. Of greater interest to me, however, is whether the Diamond League met its goal of expanding the brand of athletics. Meeting that goal will help the athletes, coaches, meet directors, and everyone involved in the sport.
In addition to my comments below, read my thoughts on watching Weltklasse Zürich over at Jesse Squire’s Track and Field Superblog.
Although I’m a track fan and athlete, my interest in athletics goes well beyond spectating and competing. For me, I also love the business side of the sport and am constantly thinking about the challenge of how we can grow athletics. One recent idea that has proved very successful is the shot put’s move outside the stadium at many meets. This has been a classic example of thinking outside the box (and the stadium) that has worked.
How We Got Here