Why isn't the Track Season more like the Tennis Season?
The lack of key matchups between the stars in the sport of track and field is often cited as the downfall of the sport. The reason why star athletes don’t race each other as much as they should is because they aren’t forced to. It takes exponentially more energy to be at the top of your game than it does to run at say 95%, so athletes focused on winning the big one will dodge other top profile athletes until they are forced to race each other at races that are too high profile to pass up. There are also huge financial incentives based on world rankings and prize money/bonuses for winning races and since no one can do every race, it is easier to maximize earnings by choosing the path of least resistance. Since there are two world championships and one Olympics every four years this means that the stars virtually never have to meet.
The Diamond League was supposed to change this but the Diamond League clearly isn’t working. Bolt and Gay and Blake never race each other. Mo Farah and Bernard Lagat skipped the Brussels Diamond League to run the Great City Games and they didn’t race each other there either. Dibaba and Dafar are running a 2 mile and a 3000m in seperate races at the Boston Indoor Games this year. I’m sure there are plenty more examples where that came from.
Right now the sport is structured so that only hardcore fans have any reason to watch. Without match-ups story lines are never able to develop. Nadal and Federer built a great rivalry by playing each other time and time again in major tennis matches. It’s not enough that our sport’s stars are only obligated to race the very best 3 times every 4 years.
IAAF should follow the Tennis/Golf model and adopt a series of “Majors.” Each "Major" should be given an equal prestige and athletes would be made into legends by winning these races. Perhaps the schedule should be something like: Melbourne in March, Prefontaine Classic in May/June, a Floating Major (moves from city to city each Non-Olympic year, replaced by the Olympics in Olympic years) in August, and Zurich in September. Maybe instead of Melbourne it should be Doha or Shanghai or wherever is best but the idea is that there should be 4 big time track meets spread around the world that each year attract the very best the sport has to offer. I don't see why there needs to be a World Champs when other sports are proving that it is better to spread out the major competitions. Even The Marathon Majors have proved that the World Championships model isn't the best.
Since each of these races would be high profile with big prize money and shoe contracts would be structured around them athletes would have to do them. Imagine if Blake, Gay, and Bolt had to race each other 4 times a year. Winning all 4 would be next to impossible, as it should be. It would be possible though, for example in 2004: Bekele ran 12:49 indoors in February, Won Double World Cross-Country in March, set the 5000m World Record at the end of May, Set the 10,000m record in June, Won Gold and Silver in the Athens Olympics in the 10k/5k, and I imagine he came back after the Olympics and ran some great races in Europe to close out the season. He certainly would have been able to win 4 “Track Majors” in one year.
It would take quite a bit more than the stars aligning for something like this to get anywhere in the IAAF. That said, I really don’t think that golf and tennis are inherently more exciting than track and field, I just think they are better marketed and part of that marketing is the format of their season. I love this sport and I really hope to see it succeed but I think big changes need to be made if track is going to match the potential that it has as a sport.