Attention spans get shorter by the millisecond anymore.
A society glued (admittedly at times, myself included) to their smartphones, seeing there’s an outside world briefly then staring back down again confirms it.
That effect is not lost in sports for distance disciplines.
In high school track and field, an initial heat for a 1,600-meter run — or one 3,200-meter run — is interpreted as a chance to deviate attention for several minutes for a litany of reasons.
If you can’t keep focus long enough on a 10-second video on social media, chances are you can’t lock in for a 10-minute event.
So with attention span in mind, it’s not surprising — but perhaps a bit concerning — to see a decision that dramatically affects distance track and field racing abroad made in March.
The International Association of Athletics Federations, or IAAF, is the world governing body for track and field.
The IAAF operates a professional circuit called the Diamond League, which makes stops worldwide, including London, Rome, Paris, Doha and Shanghai and one American stop in Eugene, Ore.
In March, the IAAF announced plans for the Diamond League to contract for 2020. In addition to the number of meets being cut, more importantly, event disciplines will be hacked from 32 to 24 — 12 each for men and women.
“The IAAF Diamond League is the way millions of sports fans engage with athletics on a top level every year,” IAAF president Sebastian Coe said in a prepared statement. “It is a strong circuit that is celebrating its 10th year. But we can make it even stronger and more relevant to the world our athletes and our fans live in today.”
Coe, a two-time Olympic gold medalist for Great Britain in the 1,500, isn’t leaving much for the imagination. That “world” to which Coe alludes can’t hold attention for as long as it once did.
So the goal for Diamond League meets is to cut down to a 90-minute window for television.
Obviously, in order to accommodate that window, you have to cut time.
The easiest place to cut time is to eliminate events that run long.
The 5,000 and 10,000 are long.
As a result, the 5,000 and 10,000 will not be part of that vision.
The IAAF specifically stated, without announcing events that would face the ax, the longest official Diamond League race would be the 3,000.
Before bringing it back to the grassroots, there are key caveats.
After concern raised by the African distance running community, the IAAF assured them in late March the 5,000 and 10,000 could still be contested at Diamond League meets — just not as part of the 90-minute TV window and not as an official event. Several sites, Coe stated, have shown interest in still having a 5,000.
And there is no question track and field does need to take better care of its athletes, financially and with opportunity. Those aspects outside of or even close to an Olympic window are not as ideal as they should be. There is a reason, after all, you see Olympic commercials every four years with sponsors highlighting U.S. athletes working in their stores.
It’s an honest living — and there’s nothing wrong with it. But at the same time, athletes shouldn’t have to extend themselves too far if they have world-class talent like counterparts in other sports. You’re not going to see Lionel Messi working at Home Depot.
One last caveat: The IAAF making this move obviously does NOT mean the 3,200 is an endangered species in American high school track and field.
We are NOT going to see a day during which the NFHS decides 3,200 should not be contested officially.
It is difficult to view such a move as not having a detrimental impact on distance running around the globe.
Even look at how a 10,000 is presented on TV during the Olympics. There’s a lot of commercials. There’s a lot of cutaways — including to brief field-event coverage, but that’s a topic for another day. Not even analysts are dialed in to the race for stretches.
The implication — unintended or not — is clear. The powers-that-be are essentially telling a generation of athletes the longer the distance, the less it matters. That is naturally going to be discouraging.
Why should athletes work diligently for their entire athletic careers in those disciplines if it’s not “important”?
Distance running is an art form, one which we have been fortunate to see mastered by some great performers in recent memory. To name a select few, Joe Bistritz, Bekka Simko, Ally Markovich and Annie Zimmer in 1,600. Nick Elswick and Leah Roter in 3,200. Numerous state qualifiers and placers in both events.
Elswick’s 8:57.93 at the Division I Austintown-Fitch Regional his senior year at Chardon in 2014 to shatter the all-time area record was a masterpiece. Roter’s 10:29.53 as a junior at the D-II Perry District for Beachwood in 2017 to obliterate the girls area standard is one of the most breathtaking runs I’ve ever witnessed.
The boxing. The pacing. The fortitude and road miles it takes to locate a kick on the big stages.
Distance events have a vital place in track and field — a time-consuming place, but nonetheless a vital place.
If we’re invested in track and field, we owe it to the people past, present and future who take on this craft to give them attention. We need to respect the miles we’ve seen them quietly log in preparation to be great when their turn comes on the track.
We need to value distance running.
Eliminating long races from the forefront of the sport only devalues it.
They don’t need to eliminate races, because they’re culling athlete depth with that broader message.
If there’s prospective young runners watching, then that’s a problem.
And it’s a problem that is worth our full attention span in the long run.