I was fortunate enough to attend both the inaugural World Junior Championships in Athens 1986 and the Youth Olympic Games in Singapore 2010. On both occasions, it was a pleasure to see youngsters as yet untarnished by anything other than ambition, at the same time as being afforded the opportunity to evaluate future potential. In Athens, in addition to the already familiar (to me) elegant British high hurdler Colin Jackson, it was my first glimpse of another future world record holder Javier Sotomayor of Cuba, as well as surprise Olympic 1500 metres winner two years later, Peter Rono, who could only finish second in Athens to his more talented (in my estimation) Kenyan colleague, Oanda Wilfred Kirochi.
In Singapore, the biggest impression was the aggressive running of 16 year old Luguelín Santos of Dominican Republic who would make an impact at senior level just two years later when he won Olympic 400 metres silver in London. However, another expected winner, Hamza Driouch could only finish second to Mohammed Geleto of Ethiopia in the 1000 metres. And there was to be more to Driouch’s story. Firstly, I bumped into Hicham El Guerrouj in Singapore. One of many former Olympic legends invited to the YOG to advise and enthuse the youngsters, he complained (back then) that something needed to be done to prevent talents like Moroccan-born Driouch following in the footsteps of the mercurial Kenyan, Stephen Cherono (aka Saíf Saaeed Shaheen) and being poached by Qatar.
In fact, Driouch had already been living in Qatar for some time; when their father died, he had gone there with an elder brother who was seeking work. But his quickly recognised athletics talent meant that he got Qatari citizenship rather more rapidly than the 20 years it usually takes. Driouch went on to win the World Junior 1500 metres title in 2012, but then it all fell apart. Shortly afterwards, he became one of the first athletes to be banned for inconsistencies in his doping passport when he was a member of Jama Aden’s training group. He was reinstated last year, but the attendant infamy extended to Mo Farah when the multiple British gold medallist was pictured training with Driouch, whose career is yet to recover.
As for the Youth Olympic Games, they have gone on to greater glory and become an integral part of the Olympic development programme. As such, the YOG is being used as a proving ground. As you can see from the reference above to the 1000 metres, there are intermediate distances, and nothing further than 3000 metres. There is also a medley relay, with teams composed by continent rather than country. The most recent announcement is the intention to use the next summer YOG, in Buenos Aires 2018, to restore cross country running to the Olympics, whence it was ignobly despatched almost a century ago.
In addition to winning the 1500/5000 metres double inside an hour, the great Paavo Nurmi also won the cross country event at the Olympic Games in Paris 1924. The Flying Finn finished almost as fresh as he started, but the rest of the field was decimated by the heatwave in which the race had been run. Just like the movement to keep women from competing in the Olympic Games until 1928, that disaster was excuse enough for officials to excise cross country from the Olympic programme.
Its reintroduction, if only for the YOG is a start, but the proposed format is not welcome; at least not in this household. According to the IAAF press release, ‘….In stage one of the 1500m, 3000m and 2000m steeplechase, all athletes will compete in a heat of their individual event. In the second stage of the competition, all athletes from those three events will compete in a combined 4-5km (distance tbc) cross-country event, one race for boys and one race for girls.
The placings of athletes in each individual event and in the cross-country race will be added to determine the overall final placings with the athlete having the lowest total score being the overall winner. The results of the cross-country race will be adjusted to reflect separate rankings for the 1500m, 3000m and 2000m steeplechase respectively with medals being allocated accordingly.
For example, an athlete placing second in the 3000m and fourth of the 3000m runners in the cross-country race will receive a final score of six points….’
Now I hope that is clear to you, which is why I pasted the details rather than give you an incorrect or incomplete resumé. And here’s the problem, or at least my problem.
Any event where you need to tot up points before announcing the winner is a ‘no-no’ in my book. The multi-events are bad enough. For example, Athlete X finishes an exhausted and well beaten seventh in the Decathlon 1500 metres, yet lo and behold, he is the Olympic champion, due to the points’ lead he has previously amassed. But it’s not immediately apparent. Ditto the heptathlon 800 metres.
The Modern Pentathlon, a sport which clings precariously to Olympic status did the right thing 20 years ago, when event organisers slashed the multi-day programme to a single day, and re-introduced the idea of the handicapped start, ie competitors setting out on the final event, the three kilometres cross country, with the time margins equivalent to the points standings. Thus the leader after four events goes off first, followed by second, third, etc, with one second delay for each four point deficit. And, in the time honoured phrase, the first one home is the winner. The extraordinarily exciting finish, with Aleksandr Parygin of Kazakhstan passing the falling Eduard Zenovka of Russia in the final ten metres in the 1996 event in Atlanta ensured continued Olympic status.
So why can’t the IAAF do us all a favour and do the same – adopt a rule change that makes the multi-events more spectator friendly? Instead, they maintain a system destined to make the sport more opaque; as they are doing with this cross country initiative.
Just what we need in an age of instant gratification. Not!