A Few Thoughts About World Rankings

By Steve McGill
Updated: November 2, 2005

Raleigh, North Carolina—In the sport of Track & Field, when discussing who is the “best,” we all like to use rankings as a barometer. Whether they be world rankings, national rankings, regional, state-wide, city-wide, county-wide, when the rankings are listed, we all flock to the newspaper or internet to see where the athletes we care about stand in comparison to the rest of the pack. While I must admit that I’m as guilty of this behavior as anyone else, I would also say that one of the problems with this infatuation with rankings is that it takes away emphasis from performance on the track itself, which is where the magic happens.

On the professional level, Track & Field is one of the few sports – perhaps the only sport – in which you can be the world champion but still not be considered the best in the world.

In professional football, for instance, would you have ranked the Steelers above the Patriots in 2004-05? Although the Patriots beat the Steelers in the AFC Championship game, the Steelers finished the regular season with a better record, and they defeated the Patriots in their only regular season meeting. So, based on how Track & Field rankings go, it would be a toss-up in deciding whether the Steelers receive a higher ranking than the Patriots, even though the Patriots won the Super Bowl! So, obviously, there’s something basically illogical about ranking systems to begin with. In international Track & Field competition, the World Championships or the Olympic Games is the meet that everybody trains for, it is when everyone expects to peak, so that’s when everybody is supposed to be in top condition. Logically speaking, therefore, the athlete who wins when everybody is at their best should be the one who is considered the best once the season is over. Sure, the championship race is only one race, on one day, but it is the one race that everyone agreed upon was the race that would determine who earns the title of greatest athlete in the world in that particular event.

Powell (left) and Gatlin at the Athens Olympics in 2004

Powell (left) and Gatlin at the Athens Olympics in 2004

American sprinter Justin Gatlin ended the 2005 season ranked behind fellow Americans Tyson Gay and Wallace Spearmon by the IAAF (International Amateur Athletic Federation) in the 200 meter dash even though he defeated both of them at the World Championships, because he didn’t compete in the event often enough throughout the summer. As far as I’m concerned, winning the world championship should automatically give you the #1 ranking, and let all the other criteria (consistency, amount of competitions entered, seasonal best times, etc.) matter only for the rest of the places. How are you going to rank Gatlin below anyone else when he won the big one? What if, in the 100 meter dash, Jamaica’s Asafa Powell, because of his world record of 9.77 that he set in June, had been granted the #1 ranking even though Gatlin had won the world championship? A lot of people would argue that a world record equals, or even trumps a world championship, even if the world record takes place in a comparatively minor meet. Which leads me to my next point.

How are you going to tell me that a world record trumps a world championship? One of the negative effects of rankings is that they put too much emphasis on times, and not enough on victories. In the Powell vs. Gatlin argument, for instance, Powell’s 9.77 is undoubtedly an outstanding performance, an historic performance, but still, in my mind, that’s like Wilt Chamberlain scoring 100 points in a regular season game. It’s a phenomenal, awe-inspiring performance, but it didn’t occur when the season was at its peak. Also, because so many factors go into a world record, there are plenty of near-misses that may well have been, when considering all the factors, faster races than the world record itself. The biggest and most obvious factor of all is wind readings. In the 100 meter dash, for example, a sprinter who runs a 9.90 with a tailwind behind him isn’t moving as fast as a sprinter who runs a 9.95 into a headwind. Track is a sport that puts way too much emphasis on times when it comes to determining who the highest-ranking athletes should be. Gatlin, for instance, has never lost to Powell in a major competition, so why are we even talking about Powell in the same breath as Gatlin? Gatlin has an Olympic gold medal and a World Championship gold medal to his name, while Powell has earned no medals in a major international competition. Time will tell which of the two will wind up having the better career, but as of now, there can be no doubt that, with the decline of Maurice Greene, Gatlin stands head and shoulders above the rest of the 100 meter field, including Powell.

Xiang (left), Arnold (middle), and Doucoure (right) battle it out over the high hurdles.

Xiang (left), Arnold (middle), and Doucoure (right) battle it out over the high hurdles.

Meanwhile, in the men’s 110 meter high hurdles, France’s Ladji Doucoure didn’t emerge victorious in all of the races in which he battled head-to-head against the likes of Americans Allen Johnson and Dominique Arnold, and China’s Liu Xiang, but he did win the World Championship, which is the meet they all geared their training and competition schedule toward, so why should he earn anything other than the #1 ranking? As it stands, he co-owns the top spot, along with Arnold, who also had an outstanding season. The women’s 400 meter dash raises another interesting slant on the subject. Tonique Darling-Williams of the Bahamas and Sanya Richards of the United States engaged in classic head-to-head battles throughout the summer, with Richards winning the majority of the meetings. Richards also ended the season with the fastest time in the world, defeating Darling-Williams in that race. Based on those weighty criteria, Richards ended the season with the #1 ranking. However, Darling-Williams is the world champion, which, again, to me, should trump all.

Richards celebrates her Weltklasse victory in Zurich.

Richards celebrates her Weltklasse victory in Zurich.

Rankings may be a lot of fun to discuss and banter about, and they may have their practical usefulness in that they keep athletes motivated through the grind of a long season, and they allow athletes to see where they stand in relation to the competition, but in the end, they really don’t add up to much. The old saying that the race is won on the track will forever hold true. I’ve heard many a boxing analyst say that, for a match that isn’t won in the ring, but is instead decided by the rulings of judges, the outcome is always going to be suspect. I remember former middleweight champion Marvelous Marvin Hagler once holding up both fists during a pre-fight press conference and saying, “These are my two judges, K and O.” The same thing goes for track – athletes, coaches, and fans alike should focus on the races being run on the track, and leave the rankings for the stat fanatics and the pundits.