Get Rid of the Decathlon? If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Break It

Four years ago I left my hotel room to head for the London Olympic stadium. We got an early start to navigate the public transportation, security queues, and ticket lines. We still got to our seats an hour before the competition started, but I felt like we were late as the stadium was already packed. It was immediately clear they were not there to see the men’s hammer throw qualification like I was. Neither were they there to watch the steeplechase qualifying round. They were there to see one person: Jessica Ennis. The people in front of us brought their five-year-old daughter to witness the spectacle and her scream nearly blew out my eardrums once Ennis started the competition with a national record in the hurdles. The event’s power to draw in fans was on full display in London. The multi-events are a two-day test to crown the world’s greatest athletes and fans stand in awe of the diverse skill-set the top athletes possess. Therefore it was a bit odd when I learned that a new proposal from European Athletics would get rid of the heptathlon and decathlon forever in favor of newer formats.

Earlier this fall, the European Athletics Event & Competition Commission presented several proposals to help move the sport forward. One is the roll-out of a new ranking system. Another is a proposal to modernize the multi-events with the following key changes:

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As you can see, this proposal would mean the elimination of several men’s events and a drastic change of the women’s running events. European Athletics acknowledged the pros and cons of this proposal in their presentation and it is important to note that, unlike the new rankings system, this is just a proposal. The main advantage they identified were shorter days that are easier to package (i.e. one field event and one running event session). The main disadvantage they list is the discontinuation of such a historical event.

Before I go into whether I think this is a good or bad idea, it is helpful to have a framework to look at such issues. The term innovation is thrown around all the time now, but people seem to be interested more in the word than whether it actually helps our sport. Change is needed, but not any old change will do. We must be systematic in how we develop and analyze change in order for it to have the most impact. Therefore I would propose that leaders in our sport ask the following simple question before spending valuable time and resources on the next innovation project.

Is it broken?

The old saying goes: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Are the multi-events broken? Is track and field broken? The world is surely changing and sports need to change with it. On the one hand, it is easier than ever for fans to follow the sport. But it is also becoming increasingly difficult to reach new fans with such a saturated media environment. Sports need to think ahead because even the biggest sports can shrink if they take anything for granted. For example, this week Bill Simmons and Malcolm Gladwell took a detailed look at how the NFL’s failure to address looming issues has led to the big ratings declines so far in 2016 and could spell future trouble for them as youth participation rates have plummeted. As a sport, you should be proactive in confronting challenges in the changing environment; something may be broken without you even realizing it yet.

While steeped in tradition, the decathlon is also no stranger to change. The decathlon is an homage to the ancient pentathlon, but the original version included wrestling. When it was introduced into the modern Olympics, scoring was linear. Issues with that led the sport to adopt an exponential points table, which has been revised several times. The most recent changes took place in 1984 and then the introduction of a new men’s javelin implement in 1986 also impacted the event. The women’s event is even newer. The heptathlon was first introduced to the Olympics in 1984 and replaced the pentathlon by adding the javelin, the 800 meter run, and lengthening the hurdles from 80 to 100 meters.

Athletics has real problems. Focus on those before trying to eliminate the decathlon. Click To Tweet

Change can help, and change has been effective in helping the decathlon grow in the past. But does the sport need further change? Is it broken? From what I saw in London, things seem to be going pretty well. If every event had an Ashton Eaton and a Jessica Ennis as ambassadors, the sport would have solved many of its issues. Such stars are rare in our sport and have given fresh life to the multi-events. While Ennis recently announced her retirement, Olympic champion Nafissatou Thiam was named the IAAF Rising Star last weekend and bronze medalist Brianne Eaton is the other half of the sport’s power couple. The multi events have the stars and the fans to help it grow. While minor changes might help improve presentation, drastically reformatting the event seems like overkill when the need for change is not even clear in the first place.

What needs to be fixed?

If change is necessary, the next step is to figure out what needs to be fixed. A good case study here is this year’s World Indoor Championships in Portland. Innovation was a buzzword there too but it was all focused on a clear goal: improve audience engagement and the fan experience. By knowing their goal, they were easily able to focus on changes that helped them reach it. As I wrote about in April, the end result was nothing sexier than doing simple things like decreasing down time, highlighting stars, offering better food options, and letting fans know the current standings in field events. It worked as they had a clear goal in mind.

With the octathlon proposal I am not sure European Athletics has a clear goal of what they want to fix. Are they trying to make current fans happier by making the event shorter? Are they trying to reach new fans by making the scoring easier to follow? It’s not clear what the overarching goal is. I’ll address below whether this is the right approach to fix those problems. But the analysis is always easier if there is a clearly defined problem.

What do the stakeholders think?

After hearing about this proposal I immediately wrote to Harry Marra, long time coach of Ashton Eaton and this year’s winner of the IAAF Coaching Achievement Award. He was surprised and had heard nothing of the proposal. The more coaches I talked to the more I heard the same reaction. How is it the sport’s top coaches hear about critical changes to their event through such a circuitous route? Didn’t they consult the stakeholders?

The IAAF and other administrators are out of touch with our sport. That’s why many were surprised to learn last year that Russia had a doping problem. Before changing the sport, they need to step out of the bubble and talk to athletes, coaches, and fans. Athletes are the ones directly impacted by the change as changing events will change its champions and how they need to train; the ocathlon is a different sport than the decathlon. Coaches have been in the sport even longer and can give perspective on what changes are likely to work, and where the underlying issues really are. The fans are also important. Much change is done in the name of fans without actually talking to them. Infuriate them and you may lose the only people left watching.

With this in mind, I asked for Marra’s hot take on the proposal:

“The decathlon is at the core of what all of the ancients spoke too in developing the complete man. It is a contest of mind, body and spirit! Whoever proposed these changes are ignorant of this. Instead, the decathlon should be the centerpiece of the Olympics and the World Championships. In addition it exemplifies a contest, carried out over two long days of man versus man in a struggle for supremacy. The decathlon defines the creed of the Olympic Games in complete harmony . . . Swifter, Higher, Stronger. What needs to be done is a much better understanding of my above stated comments in educating the public and then the decathlon will take on a greater interest to those watching. It should become the focal point of complete Track and Field at the Olympic Games!”

Harry MarraCoach of World Record Holder Ashton Eaton

Tony Minichiello, coach of Jessica Ennis, had similar thoughts to share:

I’ve also talked to the Swiss national coach and many top decathletes about this issue. The stakeholders seem to be in agreement: it is not the sport that is the problem, it is a problem of presenting the sport. It is shown as simply a competition now without the underlying significance highlighted. The pole vault, for example, is an event that many decathletes struggle with but also one that defines the event because it is such a hard task to complete. Drastically trying to simplify the event by eliminating something like the pole vault will take away what makes it unique.

Will the proposal actually address the problem?

This final critical question is where things get real. In many situations change is needed and the problem has been identified. But the solution either doesn’t address the problem or is complete overkill. The fist case was true in past proposals to change the hammer by making it heavier. The most frequently cited excuses for excluding the hammer have nothing to do with distance thrown; they instead focus on harm to the grass or cage safety. Simply making the hammer heavier will therefore not fix the issues our event faces. Other proposals fail because they are overkill, as was the case with the reduction of field events attempts in the Diamond League last year (the IAAF announced today this rule change was reversed). While the field events might last too long, simply making something shorter does not make it better. It was overkill that does not fix more structural issues to how the events are run and, as a result, didn’t bring the events more TV coverage as planned.

The octathlon proposal runs into both of these problems. First, the issue is impossible to conquer. European Athletics want to make a complex event simple, but we have to be realistic: no matter how the events are formatted a two-day long competition will likely only attract die hard fans to every event. The rest will simply watch summaries and, for them, presentation is about how it is summarized and now how it is structured. Gymnastics also has a complicated scoring system but that does not stop it from being one of the most popular Olympic sports since the presentation is better.

Second, it is overkill. If the goal is to improve current fan experience, then small changes can be just as effective in this area. If the pole vault is long then why not decrease down time between the attempts? Or even limit the number of misses? These also change the sport, but in more subtle ways. As I highlighted above, the decathlon has changed many times over its history, but for the past century the 10 events and their order have remained unchanged. Why change that now if event presentation can be improved upon in other ways?

Small changes in presentation can work just as well major changes. @bingisser Click To Tweet

If the goal is to grow the sport, then the solution is even easier. The multi-events are full of stars, but promotions is so focused on Usain Bolt that it doesn’t use its other stars enough. Starting with Jim Thorpe, who won the first Olympic decathlon title, the sport has produced one star after another. More recently you’ve had a string of studs like Bill Toomey, Daley Thompson, Rafer Johnson, Dan O’Brien, Bryan Clay, Roman Šebrle, Ashton Eaton, and others. The stars on the women’s side have been even greater at times with names like Jackie Joyner Kersee, Carolina Kluft, and Jessica Ennis. But are we using them? In speaking with former decathlete and multi-event coach Vern Gamebetta last week he felt we aren’t:

“There have always been stars. The people just haven’t done a good job of promoting the event.”

Vern GambettaFormer Decathlete and Multi-Events Coach

Conclusion

European Athletics underwent a rebranding this year and adopted the slogan “Your sport for life.” Maybe their should be an asterisk next to that; it is only your sport for life if they decide to keep your sport. A more thorough process for evaluating such proposals would help them better focus on how to help our sport grow. In doing such an analysis we see that the sport is not broken, no clear item needs to be fixed, the stakeholders are firmly against drastic change, and the proposal does not appear the most appropriate means to bring the sport forward.

Maybe European Athletics can instead turn its attention to other issues like how, in 2016, we can get over a fear of throwing the hammer inside stadiums. It has been nearly 50 years since we put a man on the moon after all. Or how to reduce the broader corruption and doping in our sport since the focus now seems to be entirely on Russia. Athletics has real problems, so let’s focus on those before destroying one of the sport’s most iconic events.

3 replies
  1. Tony Dziepak
    Tony Dziepak says:

    It might be interesting to do an 8/10 decathlon. Use the men’s decathlon events and order, for both men and women, but take the 8th best performance as the score. That is, athletes can get a score by only doing 8 of the 10 events (if they do 9 or 10 events, only their 8th best will be counted). This solves a lot of problems and adds interest. Different athletes will have different strengths, and more athletes will opt in to multievent competition. It’s a way to get pole vault into women’s multievent without requiring everybody to do pole vault. You can officiate decathlon consistently to open events with no false starts–the athlete will have to make it up in another event. And yes, go back to linear scoring with the 1000-point level set to the WR as of Dec. 31 of the previous year. The zero-point performance will be set so that the marginal effort is about equal across all events. And it makes more interest because it will not necessarily all come down to the 1500 / 800–a few may choose not to run the 1500. You could restrict the skipped events so athletes must score at least 2/3 throwing event, at least 2/3 jumping event, either the 100 or hurdles, and either the 400 or 1500. For indoor comps, you can do similar with 7/8 over two days, with the restriction that the dropped event must be either a track or a jumping event.

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  2. Tony Dziepak
    Tony Dziepak says:

    OK I cannot see how to edit my original reply, but perhaps the unscored events can be simplified and tightened as follows: you can drop one track event and one field event.

    Reply
  3. Jim Haberkorn
    Jim Haberkorn says:

    I agree. I certainly cannot see reducing the men’s decathlon by two events making the slightest difference in track and field’s popularity. If it were me, I would add a team decathlon event – have each nation’s best 100 meter runner, best hurdler, best discus thrower, etc., compete as a 10 person team against ten-person teams from other nations.

    In regards to the bigger issue, i.e., why isn’t the great sport of track and field more popular, I can’t claim to have the full answer, but I will offer a theory: The sport at the professional level is unbelievably corrupt. And therefore the money that the sport generates is misused on a massive scale and is certainly not used to promote the sport or the athletes. Track and Field seems determined to always kill the golden goose – the athletes. For example: as corrupt as soccer has proven to be, I don’t recall reading any stories where FIFA leaders were extorting money from the athletes they were supposed to be serving, whereas that was certainly the case with T&F. And at the same time I have to ask myself, how deep and for how long must the rot in T&F been going on to have evolved to the point where leaders were elected who thought preying on the athletes themselves was ‘one of the perks of the job.’ When a country is corrupt, the progress stops. Same thing goes for athletic federations.

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