How Sensible Standards Kept Me in the Sport for Life

When I read last week that the IAAF announced the Olympic qualifying standards, including an unbelievable qualifying standard of 83 metres in the javelin, my first thought was:

Please please can somebody stop these people from killing our sport!

I was a thrower, some would say for too long. Throughout my career I qualified for four summer Olympics and stayed in the sport until I was 41. It is fair to say I loved my event and my sport. I am now a national coach and a oragniser for Spitenleichtathletik Luzern, one of the top European meets. I have no major medals to my name but a lifetime of experience and a passion for the sport to pass forward to the next generation.

terry_javelinBut rewind to 1987 and I was just a young thrower trying to make my first major championships. I had a personal best of 72.42 metres and was working at the same time as a production manager responsible for 240 employees at a clothing company. I was just 23 years old.

Had the Olympic qualifying standard been 83 metres at the time, what would have been the probability that I would focus on the sport at a high level and spend the next 20 years committing myself to trying? Very low. I am not saying I would be a loss to my sport had I not qualified for Seoul, but I had ability to do other things as most good sports people do. In addition to starting off a strong working career I also had been on the Irish national handball team and played in the first division of the Irish basketball league. Later I was a two-time Olympian in the bobsled. Facing the prospect of needing to add 11 metres to my personal best, I would have likely spent more time in other sports and less in athletics.

Related Content: Read more from Martin Bingisser about the new Olympic standards and the effect they have on the field events.

I look around at some of my teammates and they could have said the same. Nick Sweeney, a four-time Olympian in the discus from 1992 to 2004, was on the Irish junior national rugby squad. Victor Costello, a 1992 Olympian in the shot put, was had 39 caps for the Irish rugby team. Barry Walsh was a European Junior medalist in the shot put and competed at the 1993 World Championships in the decathlon, before turning to rugby. These are just a few names that might have left the sport at a young age if the prospect of making the Olympics had been so difficult back then.

As it was I qualified for Seoul, achieved a national record at the Olympics and that was the beginning for me. All of the others things took a backseat for javelin from then on. I would not now be a national coach or a meeting organiser. Both of which I feel are relevant to the future of our sport. It is not a matter of one less competitor at the Olympics, but the future of our sport.

The problem is the Olympics will happen next year, there will be 3 medals won there will be 12 people in the final and in the short-term these ludacrious standards won’t be noticed. But perhaps ten elite throwers in the javelin alone will not be there, marking a change in their sporting path. Our loss will be the gain of another sport as the athletes have choices.

When will we learn from our past mistakes?

Towards the end of my career the Olympic standard for the 2000 Games was set at 83.50 metres. The IAAF had to come back and revise several standards because they were too high and ended up bringing the javelin mark down to 82.50 metres.

How can it be that now the standard is even higher than 2000 when the javelin was at an all-time high? Twelve throwers have thrown further than 90m all-time and eight of these were active in 2000. As an example Steve Backley threw 89.85 in 2000 and only ranked 5th on the year’s best list. How can it be justified that 15 years later with the level substantially decreased (the world best in 2014, 89.21, would have ranked sixth in 2000), a higher standard is needed?

The truth is that it can’t be justified. You don’t need 83 metres to bring together a field of 32 athletes to compete at the Olympics. But if you set that standard so high it sends a message to every athlete under the standard that they are not world class.

An 83-metre standard tells sponsors that an 80-metre thrower is not good enough to support. But in 2012 you could have been the sixth best sprinter in Hong Kong and been an Olympian as Hong Kong qualified a relay team. That means you can be literally ranked more than 2000th in the world and be an Olympian. Funding and sponsors will go to this athlete because they are an Olympian, but not a top 40 field eventer as they have not met the standard.

Look at the world lists and the average top-50 thrower had broken 80.25 meters. A top-40 throwers was over 81 meters. I believe the Olympic standard should equate with approximately 40 to 50th place in the world list. thus ensuring a balanced view of the current status of the event, standards set themselves and there are no surprises.

  2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 Avg.
Top 50 79.35 80.33 81.02 80.13 80.36 80.23
Top 40 79.91 81.01 81.74 81.10 81.14 80.98

Keep it realistic

Set the standards at this realistic level (approximately 40th to 50th on the previous year’s world list) and as I’ve stated and you will get 32 competitors with a little discipline. Plus the young ambitious thrower will see a goal that is achievable with hard work, good coaching, good competitions and some luck. Set the standard to 83 metres, or approximately 23rd in the world list or 164th ALL-TIME in the sport, and it will turn people away from the sport. Set it at a reasonable standard and the athletes ranked 75th to 150th in the world will see it as possible, instead of becoming disenchanted. Multiply that effect by all 8 field events and you get thousands of the top athletes and future coaches who may not commit to our sport with the new Olympic standards.

This is not just about me or the few athletes that will now miss the Olympics. It is about those who will be turned away from our sport. We all come and go, but hopefully we see the need to try while we are there. So once again, please please can somebody stop these people from killing our sport!

7 replies
  1. Olympic Dreamer
    Olympic Dreamer says:

    I thank you for bringing some sensible constructive objection to the bureaucracy of track and field. As a former multiple NCAA All-American in the sprint events in the late 90s I can attest first hand how the qualifying standards (National, World, Olympic) make for the daunting task of dreaming the ultimate dream of becoming an Olympic prospect. I had the good fortune of being gifted as a sprinter to run sub 10.2 seconds in the 100m and sub 20.7 in the 200m. Now those times are average from a professional standpoint, but they were fast enough to get me into the US top 32 conversation. I was able to gain entry into the US Olympic Trials in 1996. I state this to make the point that my dream to pursue making an Olympic team was curtailed because I was an unattached athlete with no sponsor (not talking about some measly shoe/apparel endorsement-rather a paid contract endorsement that covers expenses travel and other incidentals) and worked two jobs to travel to meets etc…just trying to chase that standard…and yes next to me warming up at Mt. Sac relays would be maybe two or three specially endorsed athletes with paid contracts that allow them to have financial and emotional peace of mind as they worked on “maintaining” their consistency at the high level as opposed to chasing a standard.

    The higher the standards are to qualify the more privatized the sport will become. An elite sport for the “very few” elite athletes that major shoe companies will be happy to endorse (but drop) when the next new qualifier emerges. its a “revolving door” concept that needs to be changed…the IAAF javelin qualifying standard will never allow developmental Field Event athletes the opportunity to dream the dream. This is sad for the sport because I am a college coach and stopped long ago inspiring the athletes to work hard to dream big about one day being “just” a qualifier. Instead my primary coaching focus to achieve the emotional, social, and athletic benchmarks for the sport from a developmental standpoint and if an elite level talent emerges from my groups well…good luck training to attempt to make the difficult standard without a sponsor…The investment of time and money it takes in track and field to qualify for a national, world, or Olympic team is set on the precedent that an athlete has to train at virtually impossible elevated levels to achieve a standard that some (international governing body for sport executive) in an office sat down and decided…”well lets make track and field more exciting by increasing the qualifying standards, eliminating the unattached athlete, and make the field sizes smaller to shut out all the aspiring athletes that will not make the cut off unless they either take enhancements to hopefully get the bump up or unfortunately use their natural talent and live in poverty to train “multiple” years chasing a REDICULOUS standard that they will not attain.

    The commercialization of track and field is to blame. Corporate influence, big business, and media revenue changed the game!!!


  2. Antoine
    Antoine says:

    The Hong Kong comparison happened in Ireland also in the run up to (and including) the Sydney Olympics. There was a very large Irish contingent at the Olympics that year, many of whom were relay runners. The participation of these relay runners opened the door to a generation of Irish sprinters to follow suit (or attempt to do so), some of whom went on to great success in later years including Paul Hession, Derval O’Rourke and David Gillick. They all benefited from the ‘Sydney boost’, which If i can recall was a deliberate attempt to achieve just that – a longer term stimulus to the sport. The purple patch of sprinting in Ireland since is almost certainly linked to that experiment (c/ Sydney 2000). Despite most of those relay sprinters being ranked well outside the world Top 100/ 200 individually and their performances being well outside medal contention, they still performed exceptionally well – by Irish standards and most people agree, it had a very positive effect at a local/ national level. And you could say, given the likes of Hession, O’Rourke and Gillick coming from their midst, it represented a win for the IAAF and the athletics loving community everywhere to see those guys in action at the highest level. The question being – is it worthwhile stimulating local interest at the expense of the big picture appetite to see only the best of the best? A question worth debating for sure and one where the short versus long term focus really needs to be considered. I feel a tad peeved myself that the High Jump is also set at 2.29 metres, a height only one Irish man has ever scaled and none of the current generation have come close to. As a runner up in a world junior championships I also felt that the jump (pardon the pun) to this dizzy Olympic qualifier (at the time around 2.28 mts) was extreme (albeit B standards were allowed then..unlike now). The point being – individual event standards for events such as the Olympics are ridiculously high and they appear to becoming even more ridiculously high and elitist. I can only agree with Terry in saying this will push more athletes away from the sport. After all, athletics is by and large still an amateur sport. Why would anyone in their right mind dedicate years and years of their life and go to the most extreme levels of sacrifice to just about make a qualifier for a major championship? It happens I know, but seriously, what’s the limit with that kind of sacrifice (and personal cost) and is the risk of loosing a whole generation of technical event athletes and the loss at a national level the world over worth the sponsors money every four years at Olympic time? I don’t know to be honest. It’s sad to see the sport die, but on the other hand…..well I really don’t know what the other hand is to be honest! The benefit of not watching heats and semi finals at a major champ? hmmmm….one of my fondest Olympic memories is getting up in the middle of the night to watch TJ Kearns win his sprint hurdles heat at the Seoul Olympics in 1988. I remember thinking ‘oh my God’ he’s wearing an Irish vest, on an awesome stage and he’s just finished ahead of a bunch of lads from all over the world. Heat or no heat, that was an awesome spectacle for a kid to watch, and a proud moment to witness as a Irish man. Not sure if we’ll see too much more of that the way things are going

  3. Hansruedi Wipf
    Hansruedi Wipf says:

    Well said, well argued.

    Looking at it from another angle as well: Isn’t it also a fact that so many athletes now use performance enhancing products that are illegal, some even dangerous, in order to win or remain in the top percentage of their sport, independant of the discipline, thus making it even more difficult and frustrating for the honest ones to qualify?

    Pushing the qualifying limit up to 83 meters has probably also an immediate effect on the (dishonest) athletes health, as they start using even stronger illegal drugs and the honest ones feel even more distanced. A vicious cycle gets even more vicious, producing mostly losers and very few winners.

    How many young talents abandon competitive sports because they refuse to use illegal means to keep up? True winners in my eyes by not caving in to the temptation to cheat, but everytime a loss for the sport.

    So this qualifying limit may very well cause other unwanted side effects.


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] did it take them so long? Back in April, I put together a series of posts with six-time Olympian Terry McHugh warning that the standards were too high and the process would produce incomplete fields. I even […]

  2. […] new Olympic qualifying standards are clearly unequal, as 6-time Olympian Terry McHugh and I have written about this week. But how unequal are they? The charts below break it down by the […]

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