Len Johnson on Runners tribe
Why on earth would an organisation want to trash its own national championships.
That was my immediate reaction to the news Athletics Australia was considering separating next year’s Olympic trials from the national championships.
Within 24 hours came official confirmation that that was indeed what was happening. The London 2012 Olympic trials would be on March 2-4, 2012, to be run as a three-day meeting in and around the IAAF world challenge meeting. The nationals, already slated to be run at the new State Athletics Centre at Melbourne’s Albert Park, would remain in the mid-April slot they have occupied for the past three years.
This will obviously impact massively on the nationals. Why would the 20 to 30 athletes selected from the trials bother to come back and run heats and finals of the same event more than a month later. It will also impact on the Melbourne Track Classic, not so much its international component (which would have the IAAF worried), but which Australian athletes get to run (a) the trials, or (b) those events with international representation.
Some fields, for example, will need to be limited, others to accommodate invited internationals. Flexibility will be lost. What if, for example, Jeff Riseley or Ryan Gregson wants to run against David Rudisha in the MTC 800, but selection policy demands they run the trials 1500? Either the trial or the world challenge meeting suffers.
Then, a whole heap of athletes who would not normally win national titles will do just that a month later as selected athletes get back to training for London.
Why on earth would you want that to happen.
Detailed discussion with board members and AA bureaucrats over the period of the championships left me with a better idea of why AA wants to do it. The high performance athletes and coaches want earlier selection trials, preferably in February, but the first week of March is acceptable, yet AA has agreements with the Victorian government to stage the 2011 and 2012 nationals in Melbourne, the former as the last event at Olympic Park, the latter as part of a high-profile first year for Albert Park.
The timing of the world indoor championships (in Istanbul on 9-11 March) and the uncertainty around the precise date of the Australian F1 Grand Prix (any of middle weekends in March) make the first weekend in March pretty much the only available date.
Making the trials a three-day meeting, and retaining the national championships, even a significantly diminished version, in April, means the AA can keep faith with its high performance staff, its top handful of athletes and their coaches, and the 700 or so who compete in the national championships all at the same time.
The national championships have not always been the selection trials. In 1998 and 2000, for example, the trials were held in the second half of the year, closer to the Kuala Lumpur Commonwealth Games and Sydney Olympics, respectively, while the championships remained in the traditional domestic season. But the two did not clash, as they will in 2012.
I’m prepared to concede that AA was caught between a rock and a hard place. But there were other ways around this dilemma. The national body could have stared down its elite athletes. How many genuine London medal chances, even those wanting to compete at world indoors as well, would be at risk of missing the team if the trials had been held with the nationals. None, most probably, especially when discretionary selection is taken into account.
Alternatively, AA could have brought the trials forward, but still made selection conditional on competing at the national titles. That would be less satisfactory, as many athletes would no doubt seek exemption for injuries of dubious validity, but at least it would make the statement that an Australian title is worth something.
The way chosen has some logic, especially when you consider the conflicting demands AA has to balance.
Ultimately, though, I remain unconvinced that it was the only solution, much less the best solution.
It is also an irony that the 2011 championships were promoted almost entirely around history, but now AA has chosen to declare, in effect, that history is bunk and national championships do not count for anything much at all.
In the vernacular, that would be called trashing your championships. I know, but I don’t understand, why Athletics Australia would want to do that.