So Just How Unequal are the Olympic Standards?

The 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 numbers.

Before we dive into the numbers, it is important to remember that equality is central to the IAAF’s mission. The IAAF Constitution and point C2 of the IAAF Code of Ethics relate to equality and non-discrimination “in any form.” Equality of events is as important as equality among individuals, as treating events differently will hurt our sport in the long-term and cause the numerous problems we’ve outlined this week. Sergey Bubka, IAAF Vice President and current candidate to take over the IAAF presidency, reiterated this point earlier in the month:

Every athletics discipline must be treated equally, there should be no compromise about that.

-Sergey Bubka

He’s right and I hope the IAAF sticks to it’s values and works to equalize the situation here. Because as it stands the standards are no where near equal and the process used to create them is far from transparent. To start with, take a look at the first chart below that analyzes the number of athletes that reached the new Olympic standards in 2014. On average, the field events have just one-third of the number of qualifiers as running events. Here is how it stacks up by event group, excluding the marathon as it is in another league with 1277 athletes reaching the respective standards in 2014.

[visualizer id=”20673″]

And here is a more detailed look at how the situation in each individual event looks. At one end of the spectrum some of the sprints have more than 100 athletes over the qualifying standards. At the other end is the men’s hammer and men’s discus. The men’s hammer had just 10 athletes over the new standards and the men’s discus had just 11.

[visualizer id=”20653″]

Update: You will notice that these charts do not take into account the IAAF’s three-athlete limit per country per event. This analysis has been several other places, and I refer you to race walker Evan Dunfee’s great analysis. Even taking that into account the field events are still at an advantage. But focusing on those numbers looks at just one purpose of the standards: championhip or Olympic qualification. As Terry and I have written about, the standards have a broader usage and interpretation that now requires parity for reasons beyond simply qualifying.

What would it look like if standards were equalized?

Terry’s article advocated using one method to set the standard for all events. He suggested setting the standard around the 40th or 50th best mark in the world. To see how this looks in practice, we’ve prepared a list of what the standards would look like if they were equal to the 40th best mark in the world from 2014. First off, what would that mean for each event? It would mean standards would be approximately 1% more difficult in the running events and 1-5% easier in the field events.

[visualizer id=”20667″]

Below is a list of adjusted standards taking the 40th best mark in the world in 2014 as the new standard for each event.

Men Women
Event Standard Adjusted Standard Adjusted
100m 10.16 10.07 11.32 11.17
200m 20.50 20.36 23.20 22.87
400m 45.40 45.21 52.00 51.56
100mH/110mH 13.47 13.44 13.00 12.93
400mH 49.40 49.40 56.20 55.98
800m 1:45.80 1:45.50 2:01.00 2:00.55
1500m 3:36.00 3:35.51 4:06.00 4:05.54
3000m steeple 8:28.00 8:25.45 9:45.00 9:39.12
5000m 13:25.00 13:14.91 15:20.00 15:16.50
10000m 28:00.00 27:56.14 32:15.00 32:17.24
20km walk 1:24:00 1:20:57 1:35.00 1:30:49
50km walk 4:03.00 3:51:34
High jump 2.29 2.28 1.94 1.90
Pole vault 5.70 5.61 4.50 4.45
Long jump 8.15 8.05 6.70 6.61
Triple jump 16.90 16.69 14.20 14.02
Shot put 20.50 20.35 17.80 17.6
Discus 66.00 63.94 61.00 59.73
Hammer 78.00 75.03 71.00 69.92
Javelin 83.00 81.10 62.00 59.10
Deca/Hep 8100 7952 6200 6003
26 replies
  1. D
    D says:

    You wrote this as if those arbitrary adjustments equalized the problem, they don’t. That 1% in the sprints is huge. Those adjusted throws aren’t the equivalency of those sprint times, not even remotely. Furthermore, what qualifies isn’t necessarily an issue due to the fact that three athletes go per country regardless. And we haven’t touched on participation numbers, safety, and the time it takes in different events.
    I think there’s far more equality here than you give credit for.

    • Martin Bingisser
      Martin Bingisser says:

      I agree that the %s are somewhat arbitrary as they have a different meaning in each event. This is just to help visualize it a little and that’s why I also put the real numbers below the chart.

      Three athletes do not get to go per country regardless. That is only the case when a country has more than three with the standard. If the standard is so tough that only 10 people in the world have it, then the standards start to become quite relevant. They also become relevant with other countries use them to base their funding structures on. I’d be happy to discuss safety and other topics as these are typically excuses given after the fact.

    • tb
      tb says:

      You wrote this as if those arbitrary adjustments equalized the problem, they don’t.

      Please show your work. Martin did- he set the standards as “40 people achieved this last year”.

      If your argument were that the standards should allow 40 athletes with the three-per-country rule being considered, fair enough. It’s possible that the 100m standard would be unchanged, but you’d still have to admit that more than eleven discus throwers should qualify.

      If, however, your contention is that the standards don’t matter so we should keep them… again, I’d like to see your work.

    • Matt
      Matt says:

      This guy’s dead on. There may be a greater number of people hitting the 100 m qualifying time than the triple jump qualifier, but that is much more about the sizes of the populations contesting those events. By the reasoning presented by the author of this article, should there be as many men who should qualify to compete in men’s figure skating in the Winter Olympics as there should be men who qualify to compete in the 100m?
      They should actually be raising the A qualifier for the 100m so that countries like Canada could send more of their best athletes to get a chance to compete at the highest levels earlier in their careers.

      • Martin Bingisser
        Martin Bingisser says:

        How do you explain the race walking standards then? As far as participation goes it is by far the lowest of any event. Discus participation is also likely as high as the steeple but they are on different ends of the spectrum too in terms of quality of standard.

    • Jay M.
      Jay M. says:

      Each country get three athlete only if all three have met the qualifying standard. We only sent 28 athletes to London in 2012. A specific example is the women’s TJ where we only sent one jumper because she was the only American to reach the Olympic qualifying standard.

  2. Zz
    Zz says:

    Is this based on the A standard or B standard? Cause if you include the B there are plenty more who qualify in those events, but then it gets weird when it comes to whether or not they compete. And when we look at the events that the USA competes well in at the Olympics it’s typically the sprints more so than the mid-distance and even field events. So the standards might be more based on world standards than USA standards because we have always been more competitive with all 3 athletes we send over in the 100m, 200m, and 400m than any other event.

    • Martin Bingisser
      Martin Bingisser says:

      No more B standards starting this year. Just a single standard used. Athletes can now qualify through a waiting list, but it will be interesting to see how many countries elect to use that method. That was also the case for last summer’s European Championships but most countries elected only to send people with the standard (or higher).

  3. Coach P
    Coach P says:

    One other way to equalize the standards would be to get a list of the top performances in the world and set the standard at what the 100th or 200th or 50th performance in the world was that year.

  4. T&F Coach
    T&F Coach says:

    From a practical point of view,

    One technique can be applied in order to have similar participants’ number is to decrease the people interest in sprinting and running. This can be done by forcing those who are always ranked 25-40 to take part other events so the number would be equal. If it is deemed possible, you can have 20-30 participants at discus or pole vault from school level, district, state and national of course, not only in the USA but Asia, Africa, and South America (in ALL champs, meets, and games).

    Another way to equalize the participants’ number in discus or triple jump with the sprint events would be to put 8 circles/cages and 8 runways inside the stadium. Do not consider about safety in this case (although the athletes will be more likely to hit each other during the game). Warning: more ambulance needed here.

    If above doesn’t work, you can remove the three outer track lanes so you can leave only five athletes on the track who will compete from the heats, and then the finals. Semifinals does not required because lesser participants would be preferable for equalization purposes. This way you can actually build more stadium seats (= more audience) and put those audiences closer to the events.

    Only then we think about consequences following equalization.

    • Martin Bingisser
      Martin Bingisser says:

      We have 9 days of competitions at the Olympics, I don’t think we need 8 rings.

      And again, this isn’t about numbers necessarily. That analysis would be easy: in Beijing the target for 200m is 56, and 400m 48, field events 32, etc. Standards are separate than the number of participants since they have a big effect on the sport beyond the Olympics. As Terry wrote, having an arbitrarily high standard and push people away from the sport. As I wrote, this can also promote cheating and reduce federation support of field events (which can slowly kill them off). If the target is 32 athletes you don’t need a 78m standard. In fact you don’t need standards. They do a lot of harm when set too high. Just say the top 32 athletes qualify. Or if you want to even it out let’s say 40 athletes in all events. You get to the same point without as many negative side effects. (And this also won’t take 8 rings. It will take maybe 30 more minutes in qualifying. And like I said, this is over 9 days of competitions.)

  5. Jack
    Jack says:

    For those mentioning about there being less with the 3 per nation rule, we still see that there is a large difference between Track and Field events, with Hammer and Discus still being particularly affected. In the mens events, see for reference in regards to the maximum amount of competitors an event can have based on 2014 outdoor performances.

  6. Werner
    Werner says:

    It’s spot on.
    Some countries decide if you can go or not based on standards and then you might still need to convince the governing body you’re not wasting there money.

    Especially with no B standard’s it has to be ajusted.but I do like the idea of th top X amount of athletes gets to compete.No distances or times to be met just the top 30-40 going head to head.I think it could open more doors for more athletes.

  7. Don Dunfee
    Don Dunfee says:

    The invocation of any IAAF protocol with respect to equality in terms of number of competitors in each event at the Olympics is ludicrous. These refer to far more important issues that that alluded to here. I would like to see the study that affirms the contention that Race Walk is “as far as participation goes it is by far the lowest of any event.” While the comment is irrelevant, it is also injurious to Athletics. In terms of the standards, there are some anomalies, but each of these is ameliorated by the secondary qualification protocol. Good people have spend considerable energy in developing a system that reflects the needs and addresses the exigencies faced by those organizing a major international event. Now, in terms of the patently silly idea that the IAAF rules require that the number allowed in each event must be equal, if one wants to pursue that idea at least peruse it with correct information. In presenting the standards that would accrue to 40th place, one must take into consideration the fact that the Olympic Games limits participation to 3 per country. Take the Men’s 10,000. The author alleges that the 49th performance is 27:56:14. This is actually the 20th place on 3 per country. The actual Olympic standard is 28:00:00 and there are 22 better than this. The standard is meant to elicit a field of 27. 27th would be 28:03:88. (All standings and times are based on the 2014 top list). The qualification time limit is longer for this event. This is a difficult event in which to establish a standard because it is a final and does have limited space.

    • Martin Bingisser
      Martin Bingisser says:

      Race Walking – I don’t have global statistics and would love to see them, but each time I see numbers it backs this up. For example in Switzerland there is a database of all athletes who have results in the sport. Hammer throw is the least popular in track and field and still has 10x the participants of race walking. But I’m not really sure where this is relevant anywhere.

      3 per country – See Jack’s post.

      Missing the point – As I’ve said, the standards are about more than the Olympics. They are used by others to define what is good in the sport. People start equating the standards in different events when they are completely different numbers. 78m in the hammer is a medal contender where 20.50s in the 200m is out in the first round. But, thanks to the standards, many people would treat these athletes as at the same level. If you read Terry’s post of my post from Monday it talks about the various other negative side effects of high standards. Even if you have twice as many athletes in the sprints, there is no real justification for such low standards in the field events. It does long-term harm to the event group.

      Equality – I’m not trying to mislead and that’s why I provided the link. The main intent is indeed focused on racial/gender discrimination. But “in any form” means “in any form”. This may not be as important, but it is still important.

  8. adam
    adam says:

    Several of you are missing the point here. Try not to get so caught up analyzing and critiquing the authors suggested possible solution. The reason for the article in the first place is the glaring discrepancy in how difficult it is to qualify based on which event you participate in. Discus and hammer are two of the quintessential Olympic events. How can it be that only 10 or 11 athletes can hit a qualifying mark? Adjustments should be made and the author simply made a suggestion.

  9. Shaun Pickering
    Shaun Pickering says:

    Martin. There has always been a disparity as field event standard are always based on 32 entries or two qualifying pools of 16.
    Track events are always based on 8 flights of 8 or 64 total entries over 4 rounds.
    In the 100m this is complicated by the fact that each country is allowed to enter on athlete irregardless of standard so this tends to be in the 100m.
    I think I the walks and marathon there is also a team competition at world Champs which allows 5 or 6 athletes per country.
    With the new single A standard they have effectively capped the number of entries to fit the timetable, by inviting top 32 on list. The problem here is that some countries will not send athletes if they do not reach the actual standard as selection is based on Top 8 potential.
    Daniel Stahl was 34th on earnings but Holland turned down invitation for Rutger Smith and Erik Cadee and UK turned down Brett Morse’ invitation, so Daniel was moved up the list. He went on to take 5th in final.
    I think a number of countries are helping their athletes artificially achieve these high standards so there is a huge drop off at the championships.

  10. Hakim
    Hakim says:

    You cannot treat each event equal because depend on the country and the event you will have 10 candidate or zéro.

    Juste for the fun how many African on your stat on triple jump ? Poe vault ? 110 meters ?
    Your search is useless and did not point the real unequality between developped and under developped countries. ..

    • Martin Bingisser
      Martin Bingisser says:

      There are geographic disparities in all events as some areas have more success in some events. Africa, for example, is overrepresented in distance running. Even if you look at the field events is not simply a case of developed vs under-deverloped countries. In the hammer throw, the most developed countires only won 1 of 6 medals at the world chapmionships. The rest went to developing countries of different degrees: Tajikistan, Poland, and China.

      In any event, if the goal is international access to the sport, then wouldn’t this be more achievable if the standards were more realistic? Now “undeveloped” countries are at even larger disadvantage. Should we keep the standards at a level that excludes some countries on the basis that those countries have not reached that level? Or should we create standards that invite international participation?

  11. steve
    steve says:

    I think the most important thing you must consider is look at the number of athletes who do short sprints, they double if not triple the number of athletes who do field events. If only 100 people out of more than 500 manage to do the standard, then you cant tell me is isn’t fair..

    • Martin Bingisser
      Martin Bingisser says:

      So does this mean that curling should only have one nation qualify for the Olympics since so few people do it? Or modern pentathlon?

      You can also look at it another way: maybe we need more field event athletes to help promote the health of the sport. If we have fewer athletes qualify in an event, then there is a disincentive to compete in them and also less publicity given to the events. We should be working instead to grow the sport and cuttting support for the events suffering the most is not the solution.

  12. Charles Queen
    Charles Queen says:

    Interesting point of view, and right in line with the groundswell movement toward another contentious ideal: fairness in all things. I might offer a counterpoint, however. Despite the ideals it espouses, The Olympics are entertainment at their core, mostly financed by ad revenue (sponsorship, licensing, and media via the IOC), host cities, and the private sector. Their value as entertainment has to be maintained for the ROI to appeal to investors. You can’t win an event that the IOC can’t afford to contribute to. The logistics are mind-boggling to be sure, and the answer to this “problem”, far from simple.

    • Martin Bingisser
      Martin Bingisser says:

      I think everyone agrees the sport needs to be entertaining. That is a win-win. An entertaining sport makes more money and everyone should profit from that.

      The issue is what is entertaining. Everyone answers this question using assumptions that are rarely analyzed. Are 80 100m runners really entertaining? Are field events inherently not entertaining? And even if we decide field events are less entertaining, shouldn’t the standards line up with the target field size? Right now the standards are high, which has a domino effect on funding and other areas. In the end the IAAF will invite people without the standard to fill the field, so why not lower the standard in some events so that the procedure is more open and fair?


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