Were there more deserving winners of the IAAF Athlete of the Year awards?
Growing up, the Eurovision Song Contest was always a big night in our household. It was something I was quite happy to leave behind when I finally moved out of the family home, but as a kid we’d all stay in and watch it, with my mum encouraging us to score each act.
Naturally – and with unabashed bias – we’d give the United Kingdom dix points. But then again we were eight years old. And even then we were aware that the scores were tongue-in-cheek and that there were more worthy winners.
In the Nineties the Eurovision Song Contest opened the voting out to the public and it became ridiculously political, with viewers from each country essentially voting for their favourite allies and not necessarily the best song.
It is a trend that is unfortunately starting to be reflected in the voting for the IAAF Athlete of the Year awards. The IAAF first incorporated the public with the voting for the 2004 awards, combining it with the votes from the IAAF family. Kenenisa Bekele and Yelena Isinbayeva were deserving winners that year, repeating that feat 12 months later.
Sprinters then dominated the men’s award with Asafa Powell winning in 2006, Tyson Gay in 2007 and Usain Bolt in 2008 – all clear-cut choices. But in recent years the winners of the award have been somewhat more controversial with popularity seemingly becoming almost as big a deciding factor as achievement.
Bolt won the award again in 2009 after an even better season than the year before. American sprinter Sanya Richards was elected the women’s winner, and although her 2009 campaign was good, the likes of Valerie Adams, Blanka Vlasic and Anita Wlodarczyk – all competing in the less glamourous field events – had just as strong seasons, if not better. Still, it was a very close call and Richards did not seem out of place with her trophy.
But last year came another slightly odd choice. Vlasic enjoyed a great 2010 season, although it was not quite perfect with a couple of losses and falling a few centimetres short of the PB she set in 2009. Perhaps it was the memorable end-of-season victory at the IAAF Continental Cup that was fresh in fans’ minds when it came to voting, but either way the 6ft 4in Croatian with model looks was crowned the winner of the women’s award, and looked great in all the photos from the gala dinner alongside men’s winner David Rudisha.
Meanwhile, Belarussian shot putter Nadezhda Ostapchuk did not even make the final short list, despite being one of the most dominant athletes in the world that year with a string of 12 victories, including the world indoor title, European gold and producing the longest throw in the world for 22 years.
In fact, she finished 10th and dead last in the public vote. Taking the same position in the men’s voting was fellow shot putter Christian Cantwell of the USA, who on merit arguably deserved to be no lower than third overall and should have at least made the final shortlist of five.
And so to the 2011 award ceremony, which was held last weekend in Monaco. I never like to hold athletes up to their own high standards set in previous years and instead try to base judgement on what they have achieved during the current season. Forgetting what Bolt achieved in 2008 and 2009, his 2011 season was still a great one. But good enough to win the Athlete of the Year award?
Clearly his legion of fans – of which there are more than 5.5million on facebook – think so, but his training partner Yohan Blake may disagree, so too might Rudisha. Blake came away from Daegu with the same hardware as Bolt – two gold medals and a relay world record. But whereas Bolt, with his false start, spectacularly screwed up on the biggest stage of all, Blake rose to the occasion. He topped off his season with an incredible 19.26 run over 200m in Brussels to once again out-shine Bolt.
Rudisha, meanwhile, extended his winning streak to 34 meetings before it finally ended in his last race of the year when running on tired legs. But he performed well when it mattered most, winning his first senior world title and clocking a season’s best of 1:41.33 in Rieti, the fifth-fastest performance of all time.
Britain’s Mo Farah, whose individual World Championships medal tally of 5000m gold and 10,000m silver was better than any other male athlete in Daegu, did not make the final shortlist.
This year’s women’s winner was Sally Pearson, the Australian sprint hurdler who broke through in Daegu with a stunning victory. But as was the case with the men’s award, there seemed to be a more deserving winner, this time in the form of Vivian Cheruiyot.
The pint-sized Kenyan won the World Cross-Country Championships back in March before embarking on her summer track season, during which she remained undefeated. She won all of her races at 5000m and 10,000m and struck gold in both events in Daegu, bringing her 2011 tally of world titles to three. She also broke her own Commonwealth record in the 5000m with a world-leading 14:20.87, also going through the 3000m marker in a world-leading time (8:38.67).
Blake and Cheruiyot did not end the year completely disappointed though, as they were presented with the IAAF Performance of the Year award – an accolade that could easily be renamed the “you were just as deserving of the main award but not quite as popular, so here, have this instead” award.
I should add that I have nothing whatsoever against Bolt and Pearson. They are in fact two of my favourite athletes and both had superb seasons this year. But I can’t help but feel that this is yet another year in which an athlete who is slightly more deserving has missed out.
A few years ago the Eurovision Song Contest decreased the weighting of the public vote and reintroduced a jury for each country. Perhaps with the IAAF Athlete of the Year voting, a panel of experts from each continent could be asked to produce a list of their own top five athletes – based purely on merit – from which a final overall shortlist, and winner, can then be decided.
It’s difficult to know what the solution is. It is always good to let the fans have at least some say, but reducing the weighting of the public vote could be a start and would at least stop the awards becoming a popularity contest.