2020: Fantasy or Reality?
THAT ESCALATED QUICKLY
This week the Olympic Flame was lit in Ancient Olympia. Greece. Like a dream sequence in soft focus, a high priestess in long pale robes captured the rays of the sun reflected from a parabolic mirror to ignite the torch, and the first torch bearer left the surreal scene to begin the relay that would end in July in Tokyo.
Less than 24 hours later, as a grizzly Gerald Butler screeched “We. Are. Tokyo!” at the good people of Sparta, the Greek leg of the relay was cancelled, and the world had gone mad. Welcome to 2020.
As the Olympic flame burst into life, news arrived that the US had banned travel from countries in the EU Schengen travel area for 30 days. “But how is Kevin going to get to Georgia for his attempt at the Olympic qualification score?!” was the first question on everyone’s lips, of course.
Throughout the course of the day, major event after major event was cancelled as part of the efforts to contain the coronavirus (COVID 19). The NCAAs seemed to be the last heptathlon standing.
As Johannes Erm, Kyle Garland, Karel Tilga, Leo Neugebauer, Aaron Booth and competitors made their final preparations in Albuquerque, the restrictions started closing in. First, the competition would be behind closed doors, off limits to the public. Second, attendees would be restricted to essential staff and limited family members. And finally, inevitably, the plug was pulled, just hours before the first events were due to start. In the course of a day, the world record holder’s mode of transport became increasingly irrelevant, as the prospect of a 2020 outdoor season receded into the horizon like Niklas Kaul on the final lap of a 1500.
FANTASY WORLD INDOORS
This would also have been the weekend of the World Indoor Championships in Nanjing. The champs were postponed on 29 January, when coronavirus was largely limited to regions of China. The news broke only 6 weeks ago, but it feels a world away, a different time. A simpler time, when the biggest challenge was how Jorge Ureña was going to get his poles from Alicante to Tallinn.
But if the World Indoors had been taking place this weekend, how might they have played out? For a moment, let’s forget coronavirus, forget rankings, forget injuries, forget everything. What would a fantasy World Indoor Championships look like?
There were 12 slots open for the World Indoors. Five invitations for the highest scoring decathletes from the 2019 season who wished to compete, 5 for the top ranked athletes from the 2019-20 indoor season, the Combined Events challenge winner and one wildcard. While Damian Warner declined his invitation as challenge winner, Maicel Uibo, Devon Williams, Pieter Braun and Kai Kazmirek all declared their intention to participate.
All 4 of the 2019 leaders had quiet seasons before the announcement of the postponement, including Uibo, whose first competition was his 4th place in Tallinn after a last minute trans-Atlantic dash from the Bahamas. Not everyone, of course, was aiming for Nanjing. The UGA squad, with eyes on the NCAAs, had their typical strong early season showing with Erm, Tilga and Garland clustered around the top end of the ranks. Erm and Tilga became the 9th and 10th Estonians to exceed 6000 points with bests of 6114 and 6019. It was quite the return for Tilga, who has undergone a long rehab following an elbow injury in 2018, and quite the senior debut for 20-year old Garland with 5994.
Also making a spectacular debut was Big 12 winner Leo Neugebauer whose 5848 – had it not been on an oversized track – would place him just behind compatriot Tim Nowak in the year’s best scores. Andreas Bechmann repeated his 6000 plus performance of 2019, adding 80 points to set a PB of 6097. Jorge Ureña couldn’t quite repeat his 6200+ European Indoor gold score, nor take down his own Spanish record of 6249, but his 6143 to win in Tallinn placed him 3rd overall in 2020. Eight men cracked 6000 points in 2020, and the happiest of them all was Pawel Wiesiołek, winning the Polish champs in 6050, first time over 6000 and second on the Polish all-time lists. In parallel, Pieter Braun won the Dutch champs in 6072, also first time over 6000 and also going second on the Dutch all-time lists. Just on the other side of 6000 points, Risto Lillemets was agonisingly close with a huge PB of 5996; Simone Cairoli was just 39 points short of the Italian record with a PB of 5939, and Simon Ehammer picked up where he left off in 2019, setting a senior Swiss record of 5915 just a few days before his 20th birthday.
But two performances dominated the season. The first was the amazing comeback of Garrett Scantling, topping the tables at the start of February with 6209 at the US Champs. He last competed in 2016 at the US Olympic Trials, where he finished 4th. And the second, and standout, performance of the season was Artem Makarenko, scoring 6320 at the Russian Championships, and leaping to third place in the Russian all time lists behind Lev Lobodin and Ilya Shkurenyov.
Makarenko came into 2020 without a decathlon under his belt…and left the 2020 indoor season with a farewell to the multievents, and a hello to the hurdles. No ANA classifications were offered for the indoor season this year, so Makarenko would not have been able to participate in Nanjing even if he wanted to…but in a Fantasy World Indoors, could Makarenko and Scantling have held off the formidable quartet of Braun, Kazmirek, Williams and Uibo?
Would it all have come together for Jorge at 6300? Might Fredrik Samuelsson and Bechmann have improved on their 4th and 5th places from Glasgow? Would Oleksiy Kasyanov have turned back the clock and repeated his World Indoor silvers from Istanbul in 2012 and Portland in 2016? Or would Frank Busemann have staged the greatest comeback of all time and come out of retirement to improve his German record of 6291? Also, how can the German heptathlon record only be 6291??
We’ll never know. For now, Kevin, Damian and Maicel remain the reigning world indoor gold, silver and bronze medallists until 2021.
IT AIN’T WHAT YOU DO, IT’S THE WAY THAT YOU DO IT
At the time of writing the top ten decathlon performances of 2020 belong to athletes from the southern hemisphere, not unusual at this time of year. Felipe Dos Santos leads the table with 7932, Cedric Dubler just a few points behind in 7900 from his win at the Australian Champs. Meets are still planned to go ahead in Australia, including the Capital City Multi-event Challenge, but our timelines are being flooded with cancellations and postponements – the London Marathon and World Half Marathon Champs (April) postponed until October, the World Race Walking Team Champs (May) following suit, and the entire outdoor NCAA season cancelled completely. With national measures to avoid large gatherings now kicking in across continents it seems likely that more meetings will follow.
But it seems that the Olympics are still very firmly in the diary, as confirmed by IOC President Thomas Bach, and by World Athletics President Seb Coe on Thursday. Assuming that remains the case – and that’s a VERY big assumption - and that the COVID 19 virus passes through our lives and on its way over the next few months, a more practical dilemma presents itself – how on earth do you qualify for the Olympics?
Seb Coe also said on Thursday that many athletes already have qualification, and noted the opportunities of the Continental Tour, but even if those meetings take place they are of little use to combined eventers. In decathlon 8 men have the qualifying score of 8350. Warner, Kaul, Erm, Uibo, Kazmirek, Shkurenyov, Victor and LePage. So, there are 16 places up for grabs. But for those athletes aiming for qualification by ranking, it’s not enough simply to get a decent score.
It’s not just what score you do, it’s where you do it. The new rankings system for Tokyo is a combination of results score (linked to the decathlon points) and placing score (linked to the meeting and position).
Let’s look at an example of the world rankings, as they stand at 10 March 2020.
• Jan Doležal is currently ranked 15th, comfortably within the top 24.
• Johannes Erm is one place behind him in 16th.
• Manuel Eitel is 31st, well outside the top 24.
But the rankings give a misleading picture of what actually happened in 2019.
Johannes Erm achieved the Olympic qualifying score of 8350 twice. Despite a strong season, Doležal never came anywhere near that, and his best marks were 8117 and 8142. Doležal’s win at Multistars and his win at the Czech national champs give him a massive advantage in the rankings, and it seems that he has navigated the new system well, either by accident or by design (and he deserves that, after just missing out on Doha qualification).
The rankings position is irrelevant for Erm, who has already qualified by right, but it is a curious system that ranks Erm below Doležal. The fact that Erm delivered those huge scores at the NCAAs and at the European U23s in Gävle drags down his ranking.
However, it is much more significant in the case of someone like Manuel Eitel. Ignoring for now that 4 Germans are ahead of him, Eitel’s two best performances in 2019 were 8128 and 8067, giving him very similar results scores to Doležal. Manuel’s 8128 came when he finished 9th in Götzis, and his 8067 when he took bronze at the U23 in Gävle. And that’s where the placings scores kick in.
Doležal’s wins in Lana and at the Czech champs give him 110 and 60 placings scores respectively. Eitel’s 9th place in Götzis and 3rd place in Gävle give him only 30 and 32 placings scores respectively.
So, by decathlon points alone, Doležal was ranked 21st in 2019 and Eitel 24th.
Under the new rankings system, Doležal currently ranks 15th and Eitel 31st.
The placings scores are intended to reflect quality of competition. In Gävle, Eitel was beaten only by Kaul (the eventual World Champion) and Erm (who twice exceeded 8350). At the Czech Champs, Doležal was the only man over 7900. Something doesn’t add up.
Not only do athletes have to try and get a good score, they need to get it in the right place. Because someone scoring exactly the same points in another part of the world could get a higher ranking. That’s hard enough in a full season with a full suite of opportunities…it’s ten times harder in a season where the opportunities are dwindling day by day.
SUSPEND THE RANKINGS OR SUCK IT UP?
World Athletics have encouraged federations to be flexible in their selection criteria. But only the Germans, Estonians and Americans are likely to have selection dilemmas with potentially more eligible athletes than places. Everyone below 8350 will be trying to second guess how the rankings will play out.
In other sports, rankings help to assess the strength of the field in the absence of a measured result; in combined events, it seems that new rankings are assessing the perceived prestige of individual meetings, regardless of whether the meetings actually support that standard. And when those precious placing points start disappearing from the schedule…where does that leave the athletes?
Decathletes are strategists across ten events. Now they need to be strategists across the schedule. And in 2020, they need more than a little luck as well as strategy.
So, what’s the answer?
• Suspend the rankings for 2020, and revert to a straight points shoot-out by the end of the qualification period?
• Suspend the rankings, except for those secured in the indoor season, and if athletes would have placed in the top 24 come the Olympics as a result of their indoor performances, honour that place?
• Or just suck it up and see what happens with the rankings?
Who knows whether the Games of the 32nd Olympiad will take place, or whether 2020 will be lost. And the fate of the world record holder remains uncertain. But for now, there are more important things in life. Stay healthy and help those more vulnerable than you to stay healthy. Wash your hands, follow official advice, don’t stockpile toilet roll and don’t listen to what your cousin’s friend Dave says on Facebook.
And most of all, we send love and good wishes to our Italian friends Barbara and Gianni at Multistars, since Italy has been dealing with the worst of the coronavirus in the last few weeks.
Gli amici mostrano il loro amore nei momenti di difficoltà, non nella felicità.