Mike Rowbottom

There was some irony on Saturday (December 5) in the fact that the Female World Athlete of the Year award went to a competitor whose event, the triple jump, would have been relegated from the top tier of the sport’s annual programme in 2020 had coronavirus not thrown all sporting plans into disarray.

No one could have been more surprised or delighted than the exuberant Venezuelan world champion Yulimar Rojas, who early in 2020 set a world indoor record of 15.43 metres that has only been bettered by the 15.50m outdoor world record set in 1995 by Inessa Kravets of Ukraine.

Had 2020 gone as per programme, however, triple jump would have been dropped from the flagship Wanda Diamond League series along with the discus, the 200 metres and 3000m steeplechase would have been partially present without being scoring events for the final, while the 5000m would effectively have been replaced by 3000m races.

That re-shaping, it was announced in November 2019, was necessary to fit the meetings into a “slicker” new format in a broadcast window reduced from two hours to 90 minutes. This was in accordance with information gleaned from a wide-ranging survey of all key stakeholders - athletes, broadcasters, agents, shoe companies, spectators and TV viewers.

But last Friday (December 4) the Wanda Diamond League announced that the two-hour live broadcast slot would remain, and that "the triple jump, the discus, the 200 metres, the 3000m steeplechase and the 5000m will be reinstated."

So what changed?

“I think it was a number of influences that caused us to step back from one or two of the plans we had for this year - like the 90-minute window, like the reduction of the number of disciplines,” Jon Ridgeon, the World Athletics chief executive, told insidethegames.

“The athletes’ voices were important, but equally - and I have got to say equally because how do most people consume Diamond League? It’s through the broadcasters - so broadcasters’ voices were very important as well.

“It was important what the athletes had to say, but it was equally important what the broadcasters had to say, because they pay most of the bills.

“Athletics is a traditional sport, and changes can be painful.

“Perhaps last year there were a number of changes on the table at once and perhaps that was too much.

“This year everyone seems to be more comfortable. Many of the traditional elements of the Diamond League remain but we are also moving it forward, and we seem to have landed at the right place.”

Certainly The Athletics Association - formed under the Presidency of world and Olympic triple jump champion Christian Taylor, partly in response to the 2019 plans to re-shape the Diamond League - welcomed the news of the re-think over the programme timing and contents.

Taylor, and the equally passionate and eloquent chair and vice-chair respectively of the WA Athletes’ Commission, Renaud Lavillenie, France’s former world pole vault champion and New Zealand’s former world and Olympic shot put champion Dame Valerie Adams, were making their views about wanting to retain the full complement of events clearly known last year.

But while the coronavirus pandemic may have given World Athletics’ plans a good kicking this year, it has also - propitiously - offered the opportunity for further dialogue over the proposed changes.

“When COVID hit it was a nightmare for everybody,” Ridgeon, who won world 110m hurdles silver in 1987 before injuries cut into his career, added. “March, April, May, we were scurrying around trying to get a season of some kind going. But once we had done that, inevitably we started to think: ‘OK, we haven’t been able to test what we had planned this year, so let’s focus on 2021.’ And I think it was late summer onwards we started to speak to all of the other stakeholders.

World Athletics chief executive Jon Ridgeon believes the right balance has been reached for the 2021 Wanda Diamond League programme, adding that there was probably
World Athletics chief executive Jon Ridgeon believes the right balance has been reached for the 2021 Wanda Diamond League programme, adding that there was probably "too much" change at once in the original planning ©Getty Images

“There had been a dialogue going with the athletes, although again that probably didn’t pick up again properly until we had got through that initial period. Probably all these conversations got going again in August, September…

“That’s when the intensity of regular conversations with all our key stakeholders really began.

“Some of our key Diamond League broadcasters said to us that actually, do you know, we quite like the two-hour window. And also the fact that there were a number of groups, including some of the broadcasters and certainly some of the athletes, saying ‘we want all the disciplines back in as well.’

“One of the reasons for that was that it is so difficult at the start of the year to predict which disciplines are going to be hot and which aren’t. So you might end up excluding a discipline that ends up being a real hot event.

“Clearly to include all the disciplines - and it’s still a struggle by the way - but in order to do that you need a two-hour window and not a 90-minute window. So we said ‘Right. Is there a way we can achieve everything here - the intensity of the product and also at the same time a two-hour broadcast window.’

“And we decided there was, actually. What you do is - and we discussed this at the Diamond League General Assembly with all the meeting directors - and what we have all signed up to is a two-hour window but we are going to ensure that that intensity of action is created at every meeting.

“Diamond League is a complex landscape. You have 14, 15 meetings, all of whom have strong opinions of their own. You have all the athletes, the broadcasters. And if you take the broadcasters, of course there isn’t a consistent view. They don’t speak with one collective voice, so you are trying to find the consensus, majority view.

“Some broadcasters wanted to stick with the 90 minutes, but ultimately everyone felt comfortable with two hours providing the product was good.

“What the broadcasters want is the best possible product delivering the best athletes week-in, week-out. They also wanted intensity of product, a fast-flowing series of events within the programme.

“But they also embraced many of the innovations we talked about.”

Yulimar Rojas, whose triple jump event would have been dropped from the 2020 Diamond League programme had COVID not disrupted the season, was an ecstatic winner on Saturday of the Female World Athlete of the Year award ©World Athletics
Yulimar Rojas, whose triple jump event would have been dropped from the 2020 Diamond League programme had COVID not disrupted the season, was an ecstatic winner on Saturday of the Female World Athlete of the Year award ©World Athletics

Those included Wavelight technology - a sequence of lights pulsing on the inside rim of the track indicating target pace for record attempts - and the controversial "Final Three" format for all field events in which three athletes qualify for a "final" with all previous marks wiped out.

“The broadcasters believe that concepts like the Wavelight technology and the Final Three will help them tell the story of the meeting better,” Ridgeon said.

“The timeslot was not so much important - it was what went into that time slot. Ultimately the product is more important than whether it is a 90-minute or 120-minute window.”

On the subject of the Final Three, some bridges have clearly been built.

In August, when the long jump event at the Stockholm Wanda Diamond League meeting adopted that format, The Athletics Association said in a statement: "It’s clear that the athletes we have spoken with do not see “Final Three” as a positive innovation.

"Instead it’s a format that disrespects the jumps, detracting from the spectacle.

"Of the athletes that we spoke to, approximately 87 per cent disliked the 'Final Three' concept, including some athletes who will be competing in Stockholm."

Ridgeon acknowledges this has been a tricky area.

“Let’s be honest, I know there is still a healthy dollop of caution within some of the field event athletes. But we had made much more time this year explaining the motives of what we are trying to do.

“Perhaps we weren’t clear enough last year, but no one is wedded to Final Three if it is not the right product. What athletes have to do is prepare during the winter for it, and to have the right mindset, and they have to give it an honest test, and that’s what we’ve agreed with all the athletes.

“We are going to thoroughly test the concept next year, and if it works, fantastic. If it doesn’t we will carry on with the athletes and the broadcasters to find the right solution.

“Sometimes in Diamond League broadcasts the field events are largely ignored or relegated to a quick post-produced package at the end of the meeting, and they deserve so much more than that.

“We want to give them their big, live moment of drama.”

Meanwhile the delight of Rojas’s acceptance speech - virtual joy - continues to reverberate within the sport.

“It was great,” Ridgeon said. “One of the most ecstatic acceptance speeches we have ever had.

“But what it demonstrates is - and one of the reasons why I personally believe we have gone back to all of the disciplines being in the Diamond League - is that it just shows you that the stars of the year can come from any event, and it was a good reminder of that.”