Given that the Australian Olympic qualifying time for the 100m for men is 10.16sec and for women is 11.32sec – these times are so difficult to achieve you basically have to be ranked in the top 5 (men) and top 10 (women) Australian sprinters of all time to achieve this qualifying time. Josh Clark has qualified for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games – he will be the first Australian 100m male runner to compete at the Olympics since 2004. The Australian professional circuit and the Victorian Athletic League (VAL), including the famous Stawell Gift should be a viable alternative for Australia's best sprinters. To encourage professional elite amateur athletes to compete on the professional circuit, including the Stawell Gift, credibility of the handicapping and stewarding has to be improved.
It is not Talia Martin, Tierra Exum, Isaac Dunmall or those before them, Glen Crawford or Tom Burbidge that bring the sport into disrepute, it is the way professional athletics is stewarded.
I have been involved in the sport for over 30 years and stewarding has not improved in that time. While the handicap system has improved in recent years there is still room for further improvement.
Poor and inconsistent stewarding is why professional handicapped running lacks credibility, not athlete’s performances.
Stewarding must become quantified, automated and computer based. It must eliminate bias, inconsistency, selective and random stewarding that is continually confusing athletes, coaches and the public. This is what brings the sport into disrepute and tarnishes the reputation of professional athletics.
The sport needs to look to the cause of the problem. Most athletes competing in the Victorian Athletic League (VAL) and Athletics Australia events are inconsistent at some time in the year. This is totally understandable as any good training program does not enable an athlete to peak every week for 20 weeks a year.
I feel the final straw for the current stewarding system and methods in the VAL, was the singling out of a 15 year old’s poor performance in a non- penalty race at Ararat. To ignore her best performances during the season and previous winning performances at Stawell, shows clear deficiencies of the system.
This action has led to defamations, trolling, harassment, bullying and victimisation of a 15 year old Girl- the winner of the 2016 Women’s Stawell Gift and her running squad.
Talia Martin is the youngest ever winner of a Stawell Gift and only the second athlete to ever win a Stawell Gift after winning two races at prior Stawell Gift meetings. Having won back to back junior Stawell Gifts in 2014 and 2015.
Moving forward we perceive the best course of action is to channel our efforts into solutions rather than dwell on the steward’s selective interpretation of the inconsistency rules and the inconsistent application of these rules. These efforts can only help to seek solutions to improve the credibility and public perception of our great sport and the iconic and famous Stawell Gift.
By changing the inconsistent performance rules, this would eliminate the ability of stewards/handicappers/officials to selectively or haphazardly apply the rules to cause damaging media coverage.
Inconsistent performances should be measured as a deviation (improvement) from an athlete’s Personal Best performance (PB). This is their fastest rpm (rate per metre) or best performance over the distance they are competing in. This would not allow stewards/handicappers the ability to select poor performances against which they apply the inconsistency rules. [b]This is in line with the spirit of the sport, as athletes should be, or are handicapped on their best performances not their worst or slowest performances.
The allowable improvement deviation from an athlete’s PB rpm would need to be set at a reasonable level. My suggestion over the 120m Gift distance is that it should be around 3 metres or 2.5% -3% for the gift distance, obviously this would change depending on other distances e.g. 200m, 400m etc. Whatever is finally agreed on should be transparently available and advertised accordingly.
Stewards are damned if they do and damned if they don't at the moment, when assessing performances. Inconsistent running is irrelevant (betting on professional races is so small these days, with most meets not having any betting at all, there is no off site betting on the Stawell Women’s Gift) it is the improvement from previous best performance that is important to the credibility of pro-running.
A transparent computer based stewarding system would alleviate the pressure and responsibility placed on stewards when assessing performances. Once a race is completed and the performance is entered, the system would simply and automatically calculate any deviation from the athletes PB that exceeds the allowable improvement threshold. The athlete would then be suspended from further participation in that event if the improved performance was in a heat or semi. If it was a final they would be ineligible to receive any prize money.
The onus would be on the athlete to run more often, bringing down their PB’s and be within the improvement acceptable range.
Each athlete on entering an event would agree to the rule leading to transparent, quality and creditable performances.
These changes would be a radical overhaul and change for professional running but a necessary one if the sport is to gain credibility and the confidence of athlete’s, the media and the public. A transparent system would totally remove the possibility of bias, selective and inconsistent stewarding and put the onus back on athletes to improve PB's and compete within the thresholds.
If an athlete wins and deviates by more than the improvement allowance from their PB rpm then they would be suspended from further participation in that event and re-handicapped for the next event. These sorts of rules would immensely improve the credibility of stewarding, and the sport.
Therefore if an athlete’s goal is to win a big race, for example the Stawell Gift, they would have to ensure their PB is within the acceptable range or run a new PB leading into the race, to ensure they were within the improvement allowed deviation. The PB could be run at any Athletics Australia or professional meet. This would also enable the handicapper to more accurately handicap races, resulting in closer finishes and more elite athletes being more competitive.
This would also encourage participation by athletes and elite sprinters, as they could then run without fear of putting in a bad performance. Ultimately this would assist the growth of many minor meetings on the VAL circuit with greater participation, with a greater depth and quality of athlete on the circuit while still catering for grass roots athletics (juniors, masters and elite). Athletes with goals to win big races would not have to avoid running to hide their form as everything hinges on their PB and improvement on that PB.
Addressing Young athletes.
As young athletes can and do improve significantly from year to year they would have to continually improve PB’s to qualify so as not to breach the improvement thresholds rules.
For young athletes this would mean they would have their marks adjusted against these new qualifying PB’s.
Addressing Ageing athletes.
Opposite to young athletes, ageing athletes performances actually decline over time. Once an athlete turns 35 years it would be their PB in the past 3 years rather than life time PB from which the performance improvements would be measured.
A limit in years since the PB was run would protect ageing and master’s athletes, ensuring they continue to run and are encouraged to compete and maintain healthy lifestyles.
Professional athletics should never forget its grass roots participants and ensure it caters for the athletes of all abilities (including the elite), both genders equally, pathways for the young, and masters athletes.
This system puts the onus back on the athlete to improve their PB to be eligible to run. Every athletes PB rpm would be publicly available on the VAL website - improving transparency and the credibility of professional athletics stewarding and handicapping, thus making it more transparent and leading to a creditable and consistent system based stewarding which has been missing from pro-running since inception.
I proposed these changes some 20 years ago when I was on the Board of the Victorian Athletic League but was laughed at by the old timers in the sport. Will the current VAL board have the courage to implement these changes, which are needed to move professional handicap running forward and in a positive light?
Recent years has seen some positive changes to the handicap system, however my suggestions would significantly improve handicapping and clean up stewarding.
-Introduce a transparent personal best register for every registered athlete over all the distances and make it publicly available on the VAL website. The PB register would include every athlete’s personal best rate per meter (PB rpm). The rpm is used to compare performances regardless of an athlete’s handicap.
- Establish an allowable improvement deviation that an athlete can better their personal best rate per metre by. Either in percentage terms or metres (I personally prefer percentage) and make that publicly available. For example 2.5% -3% would be desirable.
- Clearly articulate to all runners that if they better their PB rpm by more than the allowable percentage they will disqualify themselves from any further participation in that event. If it is a final, the race and prize money will be awarded to the next placed runner within the allowable improvement range.
- A simple computer based program be established so an athlete’s rpm is publicly available immediately after the race and all improvements better than the acceptable range of (e.g. 2.5%) be transparently made available. Athletes would be advised if they have exceeded the limit and are unable to continue in the event. Or the athletes could simply check a register of results to ascertain if they could continue participating in that event or whether they qualify to continue in that event.
- Apply this system consistently, effectively making discretionary selective performance assessing stewarding redundant.
Talia Martin this year was fined for inconsistent performance in this year’s Women's Stawell Gift for improving nearly 7m from a non-penalty Ararat Gift meeting after handicaps had been declared for Stawell (one of her poorest performances of the year). While other Gift runners also improved significantly from their last performance prior to Stawell, but were not fined or sanctioned in anyway. It must be noted, many of these performances were not their PB’s. Talia Martins improvement from her Ballarat Gift personal best (handicap 11.5m – time 14.28) was 2.73% or 2.92 metres. She ran 13.70 sec to win the Stawell gift from the handicap of 13m. Is this improvement over 7 weeks too much to be tolerated?
This inconsistent and haphazard application of the current rules leaves athletes confused and puts the credibility of stewarding and administration of the sport in jeopardy.
What do others think….time for change?