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home > community > viewpoint > world track and field championships in athens: expect a wild (card) affair

World Track and Field Championships in Athens: Expect A Wild (Card) Affair
Welcome to track and field, 90s style. The sixth World Track and Field Championships will be held starting Friday in Athens, Greece. The most notable aspect of this world meet is the inclusion of star athletes through the back door via a wild card provision. This means that winners of past World Championships events may enter the world meet without qualifying at their national trials. Why wild cards? Why now?

World Track and Field Championships in Athens: Expect A Wild (Card) Affair

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By Don Allison
Posted Saturday, 26 July, 1997

Welcome to track and field, 90s style. The sixth World Track and Field Championships will be held starting Friday in Athens, Greece. The most notable aspect of this world meet is the inclusion of star athletes through the back door via a wild card provision. This means that winners of past World Championships events may enter the world meet without qualifying at their national trials. Why wild cards? Why now?

Basically two words explain the reason for allowing unqualified athletes in through the wild card: Michael Johnson. In case you haven't been following the sport too closely, a funny thing has happened recently. World class superstars have become big money attractions. Like other professional athletes, a select few track stars have become the beneficiaries of the huge marketing wave that has increased income of athletes worldwide exponentially.

Star power is what it's all about, and track is no exception. Who has the biggest star power in track? Certainly not field event athletes, most of whom toil in obscurity. And certainly not distance runners, although a few have separated themselves from the pack recently. It's the milers and even more so the sprinters who command attention and appearance fees. And Michael Johnson, based upon his results at last year's Olympic Games, is the king of the hill.

There was only one small problem. Johnson missed the US trials, held in June, due to the leg injury he suffered during his "world's fastest human" competition with Donovan Bailey. In previous years, Michael would have been out of luck. No trials, no worlds, no exceptions. That has been the rule until this year, when the IAAF usurped USATF's power and instituted the wild card.

Let's face it, Antonio Pettigrew is a fine 400 meter runner, but he is no Michael Johnson. The World Championship Meet is the IAAF's chance to draw television viewers and spectators from all over the world. The casual fan is crucial to the financial success of the World Championships. The IAAF is not going to rake in big advertising money relying on the hard core track nut. It's the casual viewer they need, and these fair weather fans don't want to hear about injuries and missed trials opportunities. These folks want to turn on the television and see Michael Johnson, and now they will be able to do just that. Of course, this means that big name champions athletes can now bid syonnarra to the trials. Whether this is good for the sport remains to be seen , but that how it is and that's how it is going to be. "It is in the best interest of track and field to have the best athletes in the world competing at the World Championships," IAAF spokesman Giorgio Reineri said. "Most sports provide the world champions with the opportunity to defend their world titles. Why shouldn't we?" Why not, indeed.

So what can we expect to see in the world championships aside from Johnson, whose fitness is suspect by the way, and is not sure bet to win the 400 meters. He will not seek to double in the 200 like he did at the '95 Worlds and the '96 Olympics. Here is what else to expect:

* Another ego-fest in the men's 100 meters. They don't have Linford Christie to kick around anymore, but all of the other major players should be on hand, including Olympic champion and "world's fastest human" Donovan Bailey. Ato Bolden has been very sharp this year and is looking to establish himself on the top rung of the short sprint. Maurice Greene is a new name on the US scene, and could well medal if he runs his best race.

* A changing of the guard in the men's 1500. Noureddine Morceli won in Atlanta, but perhaps only because his primary competition Hicham El Guerrouj, tripped and fell. Morceli, who dominated the sport for nearly all of the 90s, has looked extremely mortal recently, while El Guerrouj has been on a mission ever since he climbed off the tartan in Atlanta. The Moroccan can almost run sub 3:30s at will now. He won't need to in Athens to win, which he should do easily? The American 1500 team is rail thin, as only Steve Holmon and Jason Pyrah met the qualifying time. This is Holmon's chance to prove he belongs in the big leagues; Pyrah closes fast, an advantage in the usual sit and kick international finals.

* An African summit meeting in the men's 5000. Daniel Komen was told by Kenyan officials to skip his attempt at a two mile world record and come home to train. Komen ran anyway, popping a world best of 7:58. I wont go against anyone capable of two sub four minute miles, regardless of who else is in the race. Poor Bob Kennedy. If he had been this fast in another era, they would be making movies about him. Here's hoping he gets his well deserved medal in Athens, but it's going to be tough.

* A Kenyan sweep in the 3000 meter steeplechase. This is a recording....

* A medal for Wilson Kipketer. The now Danish citizen stuck to his principles and missed Atlanta rather than run for Kenya. It's been a while since anyone

* A fierce battle in the men's pole vault. Never has this event seen so many quality performers. The Russians will be favored but Okert Brits from South Africa may emerge on top. Lawrence Johnson, Lo-Jo, is hungry to win a medal, and may to it here.

* The coronation of Marion Jones as the new female track star. The former North Carolina Tar Hell has given every indication she is ready to assume the title's as the world's premier female track athlete from Jackie Joyner Kersee. She will have to dispense with Gail Devers in the 100 and JJK in the long jump, but she should well do that.

* Money. Yes, they will be running for more than honor in Athens. $60,000 for a win and $100,000 for a world best.

* Lots of complaining about the weather. Athens has four million people packed into an area not much bigger than Boston. Blocked in by mountains and the sea, the smog is as thick as soup in this Meddeterainen city. Many top athletes are skipping the meet for weather related reasons, reportedly including distance running sensation Haile Gebrselaisse. Which means we will see...

* Slow marathons. In 1988, I had the opportunity to run in the original Marathons to Athens 26.2 miler. It is a very hilly route through 30 km, with a fast finish into the center of Athens. One would assume the that traffic control wont be a problem in a world championship, but the heat and air quality could pose serious problems. Look for a tactical race, with a few survivors slugging it out in the final miles. Spaniard Martin Fiz is a favorite, but look for an unknown to emerge, as so often happens in these majors. Very little hop for an American medal.

Highlights From Previous World Championships

1983, Helsinki, Finland. The first World Championships were a resounding success. Carl Lewis announced his presence on the scene by capturing three gold medals...Mary Slaney held off the tough Russian women to win the 1500 and 3000..Eamon Couglan finally got his gold medal, easily taking the 5000...A teenager named Sergei Bubka came out of nowhere to win the pole vault.

1987, Rome, Italy. These games were supposed to be a coronation for IAAF leader Primo Nieblo.... An official deliberately falsified results in the long jump, marring the games...Ben Johnson beat Carl Lewis in the 100, with Lewis alleging that they were not competing on a level playing field. His indirect accusations of Johnson's drug use proved true in the '88 Olympics.

1991, Tokyo, Japan. Record breaking performances were the order of the day. Carl Lewis ran a then WR of 9.86 in the 100 meters and Mike Powell needed a world record in the long jump to hold off Lewis... Powell erased Bob Beamon's mark, which has lasted for 23 years..Steve Spence won a surprising bronze in the men's marathon...The Kenyans won every mens' running event from 800 meters to the marathon.

1993, Stuttgart, Germany. The championships moved to a two year schedule in Stuttgart....Linford Chrisite added a 100 meter title to his Olympic Gold...Merlene Ottey won her first ever championship gold medal after a pack of silvers.

1995, Gotheberg, Sweden. Michael Johnson won a historic 200/400 double, foreshadowing his 1996 Olympic feat....An official's error resulted in the women's marathon ending up 400 meters short of the 26.2 mile distance.....Moses Kiptanui honestly admitted he would eschew a world record attempt in the 3000 steeplechase, saving that effort for Zurich and a huge cash bonus.



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