Deji Ogeyingbo likes to make us think. In this column, Deji asks, has the world athlete of the year award become a meaningless accolade? What do you think? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org
Has the world athlete of the year award become a meaningless accolade?
A couple of days back, World athletics published their nominees for the male and female athlete of the year, with 10 athletes from the track, field, and walking all getting recognition for the year 2022. Through a voting process, the individual prize recognizes the best athlete in the world with indeterminate considerations for other non-athletic factors.
The award, which first started in 1988 in order to crown a male and female athlete that stands tall amongst their peers, will always spark controversies, but over time, there has been a need for it to evolve in the way it’s being awarded so it has more bite and panache to it rather than being some random event that should happen every year.
Truth is, everyone loves an award ceremony. There’s usually a free bar, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with a great big vote. It’s only wrong when you convince yourself that it actually means anything.
The debate surrounding athlete excellence captures many arguments, from purely statistical viewpoints to completely subjective opinions. Questions cloud the accuracy of basing judgment solely on numbers (popular figures, times, and wins) that often fail to provide context and, most especially, the human feeling about the event.
Usain Bolt is the highest recipient of the award as he picked up the gong six times during his illustrious career, but unlike team sports where individual accolades rave up the debate about how good a player is, athlete reward is already innate. The multiple medals won at the Olympics and World Championships already did justice to his wins and duly got his accolades.
Regarding voting, the World Athletics Council counts for 50% of the result, while the World Athletics Family’s and public votes will each count for 25% of the final result. This was done so that all stakeholders can be involved in the voting process, but unlike other prestigious awards in other sports like football and Basketball, it neglects some very important sects of people who form a huge part of the fabric of the sports. The athletes and journalists.
Tellingly, it is rather prosaic that the Council, which consists of only 26 members, gets to decide half of where this award goes too. Surely their powers and responsibilities are to develop the World Plan for athletics and approve and review the World Athletics Strategic plan and decide all matters relating to the competition calendar and World Athletics competitions, world records, bidding procedures, and selection of host cities; it would definitely put a big bias on their votes.
In 2011, there was a general consensus that Kenyan distance runner Vivian Cheruiyot was the overwhelming favorite to snag the award after her double gold medal at the world championships in Daegu, but the award was given to Australia’s Sally Pearson. It left a lot to be desired as there was almost no way journalists who cover a wide range of the sport would not have preferred Cheruiyot.
But beyond all of that, there’s a more significant problem here we all ignore: For example, how can anyone look at Tobi Amusan and Sydney McLaughlin and say that one of them is the “best” athlete this year?
My cat could tell you that they’re both incredible sprint hurdlers. She might also add that they’re not simply the best athletes in their discipline this year but probably the best ever after they both broke world records. But choosing between them? How would you even start? Are we punishing them or promoting them for the weaknesses of their countries at global events?
The reality is that some events enjoy more coverage and allure from broadcasters, which doesn’t give voters an excellent perspective. The preposterousness of the whole nominees for this year was encapsulated by the appearance of Kimberly Garcia in the top 10. The woman is a race walk. It’s an entirely different role, an entirely different skill set. It’s like taking two brilliant accountants and a fantastic architect and then choosing the best employee.
What are the chances of Anderson Peters against Eliud Kipchoge or Noah Lyles? Despite his impeccable achievements in the Javelin this year, he stands no chance. The Javelin doesn’t just get much publicity like the marathon or the sprints, which puts him at a disadvantage.
Although more advanced statistical markers of effectiveness and efficiency like the world athletics rankings use points scored for a particular performance, aggregate totals are often at the forefront of mainstream discussions. The alternative measurement scale places greater emphasis on personal values and perceptions. Athletes’ performances are visually observed to determine the quality of the individual.
Individual awards like the best sprinter or the best jumper are acceptable as they literally do exactly what they say on the tin. These simplistic awards will never lose credibility and will show future generations the brilliance of an individual athlete over a particular discipline.
There are far too many dynamics involved in athletics to truly proclaim the best athlete. The differences in environments are significant and can alter the abilities of athletes to perform at their best. Although scientific evidence supports the idea that certain individuals are physiologically predisposed to perform at a higher level, their degree of contribution relative to other factors is not always quantifiable. Hence it would be almost impossible to determine the “world athlete of the year”.