World Athletics Scraps Time Qualifiers in Distance Races at Worlds/OlympicsBy Jonathan Gault
Time qualifiers in distance races at the World Championships and Olympics are no more. On Monday, World Athletics announced a series of changes to its major championships, the most significant of which is that qualification to the next round in distance events (1500, 5000, 3000 steeple) will be based on place only, not time. Another key development: World Athletics also approved that, subject to certain conditions, an Athlete Replacement Policy may be introduced to ensure full lanes for finals and semifinals in all events when an athlete withdraws between rounds. Previously, if an athlete qualified for the next round but elected not to run, their lane would be vacant.
The new changes go into effect at this year’s World Athletics Championships in Budapest. A World Athletics spokesperson confirmed to LetsRun the new rules will be in place for all events organized under World Athletics rules moving forward, including the Olympic Games.
The table below, taken from the World Athletics annoucement, outlines the old and new qualifying systems (Q = auto qualifier, q = time qualifier).
In explaining its reasoning for the change, World Athletics said, “There has been widespread feedback on the significant disadvantage to athletes in the first heat or semifinal, and advantage to athletes in subsequent heats or semifinals, when receiving qualification based on time due to knowing what is required to qualify.”
The data bears that out. From 2011-22, 1500-meter runners in the second semifinal at a global outdoor championship were twice as likely to earn a time qualifier to the final as runners in the first semifinal. In fact, you’d have to go back to 2003 to find the last time a man earned a time qualifier to the 1500-meter final at a World Championship from the first semifinal.
Time qualifiers by semi in the men’s and women’s 1500 at global outdoor championships, 2011-22
|Year||Semi 1||Semi 2|
|Percentage of q’s||33.3%||66.7%|
The numbers were similar in the 5,000 meters, where 65.6% of time qualifiers came from the second semifinal from 2011-22.
Time qualifiers by semi in the men’s and women’s 5,000m at global outdoor championships, 2011-22
|Year||Semi 1||Semi 2|
|Percentage of q’s||34.4%||65.6%|
And in the first round of the 1500, the third heat produced almost as many time qualifiers as the first two heats combined.
Time qualifiers by heat in the men’s and women’s 1500 at global outdoor championships, 2011-22
|Year||Heat 1||Heat 2||Heat 3|
|Percentage of q’s||37.0%||13.9%||49.1%|
Surprisingly, in the steeplechase, the final semifinal actually produced the fewest time qualifiers since 2015 (the year when the current qualifying format came into effect).
Time qualifiers by semi in the men’s and women’s steeple at global outdoor championships, 2015-22
|Steeple||Semi 1||Semi 2||Semi 3|
|Percentage of q’s||30.6%||41.7%||27.8%|
Of course, just because semi #3 produced the fewest time qualifiers in the steeplechase does not mean there was no advantage. It is clearly a benefit for an athlete to know the precise time needed to qualify — even if the athletes did not always take advantage of that knowledge.
Moving forward, there will still be time qualifiers in the sprint events and 800 meters. And remember that at the 2024 Olympics in Paris, there will be a repechage round in between the first round and semfinals for running events up to 1500 meters. That means that, rather than being eliminated, athletes who do not qualify automatically from the first round of the 1500 will be placed in a repechage heat where they will have another chance to earn a berth in the semifinals. There will be no repechage round at the 2023 Worlds.
Quick Take: This is a great decision by World Athletics and, frankly, long overdue
We at LetsRun.com have long argued that there were too many time qualifying places in distance races at global championships. The fact that there were five time qualifiers available in the 5,000 meters — one-third of the spots in the final — was ridiculous as championship 5000s are often tactical. On many occasions, the time qualifiers would not be determined by who was the superior athlete but by who was lucky enough to be in the second semi.
Just look at the men’s 5,000 at the 2022 World Championships. The winning time of the first semfinal was 13:24.24 and the top seven finishers all ran within .53 of that time. The 7th-placer, Telahun Haile Bekele of Ethiopia — who won the Oslo Diamond League last year and would go on to finish 4th in the Diamond League final — ran 13:24.77. He missed the final auto spot by .29 of a second.
The second semi, by comparison, went out faster, and produced a much faster winning time, 13:13.30 by Kenya’s Jacob Krop. Germany’s Sam Parsons finished 9th in that race, more than 11 seconds behind Krop and nine seconds behind the final auto qualifier. But because he ran 13:24.50 and Bekele ran 13:24.77, Parsons advanced to the final and Bekele did not.
Major championships are about beating people, and the new format rewards that.
(BTW, this wasn’t meant as a shot at Parsons, whose interview after making the Worlds final was one of the most touching moments from the Oregon 22 mixed zone. He did what he needed to do to advance under the rules.)
Eliminating time qualifiers also makes it easier for fans to follow the action. Now it’s very simple. If you’re in the top six in the 1500 in Budapest this summer, you’re through. If not, you’re out.
Quick Take: Potential issues
One of the main benefits of time qualifier spots was that it provided a safety net for unbalanced prelims or semis. Competitors in a stacked semifinal knew they at least had the option to try to make their race fast and secure a time qualifier.
But look at the numbers above again. The second 1500 semi produced twice as many time qualifiers to the final. The numbers were nearly the same in the 5,000. That is a massive advantage. Even with the risk of unbalanced heats, eliminating the knowledge advantage is a bigger step towards fairness than keeping the system as it was. Making an Olympic or World Championship final is supposed to be hard. And there are enough auto spots in each semi (6 in the 1500, 5 in the steeple, 8 in the 5000) that potential medalists probably aren’t going to slip through the cracks.
The other issue is that, by eliminating time qualifiers — and thus eliminating the incentive to run fast — prelims could turn into jogfests as everyone tries to save energy for the final. It’s possible that happens. But the slower a race goes, the greater opportunity for chaos. Jakob Ingebrigtsen prefers fast paces in 1500m finals because it reduces the number of things he has to worry about in a race. There will still be athletes who approach prelims that way as well — especially if big names start getting outkicked because every prelim devolves into a 200m dash to the finish.
If prelims turn do into an unwatchable epidemic, World Athletics has the option to reverse course and reinstate time qualifiers. But we don’t see that happening.
Quick Take by Robert Johnson: Why not also include the 800s?
We’ve always said making the 800 final at Worlds is the hardest and most capricious aspect of the sport. In the three semifinals, only the top two finishers are guaranteed to make the final (plus there are two time qualifiers). Yes, that also happens in sprints, but in sprinting events, people aren’t drafting off each other. Everyone is in their own lane running all-out.
I’d really have liked to see them take the top three from each 800 semi to the final. If there isn’t a nine-lane track, then you could have the two slowest qualifiers share a lane in the final. The data is not as overwhelming, but historically the final semi has produced a higher share of finalists:
Time qualifiers by semi in the men’s and women’s 800 at global outdoor championships, 2011-22
|Year||Semi 1||Semi 2||Semi 3|
|Percentage of q’s||33.3%||27.8%||38.9%|
And at the 2022 Worlds and 2021 Olympics, the first round included six heats where the top three in each heat made the next round and then the next six fastest also advanced. Why not just make it the top four? If you can’t make it into the top half of your heat, you don’t deserve to advance.
One thing I’d consider for the sprints is to factor in wind. Has World Athletics considered converting all times to a wind-neutral time? As it stands right now, it’s a huge advantage to be in a heat with a big tailwind. Modern technology could instantly convert all times to a wind-neutral time and use that to advance to the final. Of course, that might be a little confusing for the fans but it’s worth considering.
But maybe the randomness is good. I’ve also often said our sport doesn’t have fumbles or interceptions or fluke goals. Catching a big tailwind adds a bit of luck into things, but I’d really like to see the 800 changes.
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MB: WA finally gets it right: no more little q’s in mid-d events