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.
But 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.
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.
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!