This is Deji Ogeyingbo’s piece on the 2023 AOY World Athletics Awards and the challenges when you change something that people really like. 

Awards, phew: Downcast Lyles rues changes to World Athlete of the Year awards

 

Last year, Swedish athlete Mondo Duplantis picked up the gong for the best male athlete of the year in Monaco- the second time he won. US sprinter Noah Lyles sat at home as he watched on, knowing fully well he would have to do the unthinkable in 2023 to stand a chance to win the award. No sprinter has won the award since Usain Bolt last snagged it in 2016.

Then, the Jamaican won three Gold at the Rio Olympics. So, the benchmark had been set. Win three Gold in Budapest, and barring any change in rules, Lyles would become the athlete of the year. Except, world athletics had other plans.

World Athletics divided its World Athlete of the Year awards into three categories for the first time — men’s and women’s track, field, and out-of-stadium events. Previously, World Athletics named one man’s and one women’s Athlete of the Year across all events. A change was made for this year after feedback was received during the voting process. The problem with that was they didn’t inform the nominees as it all came out like a bolt in the blue.

2023 Athletes of the Year, from World Athletics

After an initial selection of 11 male and 11 female nominees, the five finalists for both the men’s and women’s World Athletes of the Year awards were announced on 13-14 November. Lyles was up against the likes of Neeraj Chopra, last year’s winner Duplantis, fellow American Ryan Crouser, and newly minted marathon record holder, Kelvin Kiptum.

Nowhere in the communique was it stated that the awards will now be divided into three categories. Still, like it’s done in other sports, there should have been an overall winner- one that becomes the undisputed king, even amongst his peers. Surely, it must have irked Lyles.

Noah Lyles, Interview from Budapest 2023! art by Mike Deering, photo by Kevin Morris

Lyles, who swept 100m, 200m, and 4x100m titles at August’s world championships, became the first American to win a Male Athlete of the Year (Track) award since decathlete Ashton Eaton in 2015. One of his goals has been to win the award. He felt let down by the process. Perhaps he wanted to either win it or lose it, not share it with two other persons. In this case, Duplantis and Kiptum won the field and out-of-track awards.

 

Awards are only as significant as the folks who choose the winners, the criteria laid out by the organizers, and how closely the electorate follows those criteria.

A three-way voting process determined the finalists. The World Athletics Council and the World Athletics Family cast their votes by email, while fans logged their decisions online via the World Athletics social media platforms where a record 2 million votes were registered.

“When it came to compiling the votes, athletes, fans, and World Athletics Family members commented that it was incredibly hard to limit the vote to just one athlete because of the various disciplines and the vast differences in skill sets required,”. This was the reason given by World Athletics.

That’s all great. Those are all fine reasons not to limit the vote to one athlete. But if you observe the criteria, you should only consider one thing: who was the best in 2022-2023.

Was it the guy who won three Gold at the World Championships, or the guy who won two marathon majors and broke the world record in one, or the guy who keeps breaking the world record in the Pole Vault like he did this year too? It’s not that simple right? But that’s the point of awards, votes should separate them based on the three-way voting process.

As with elections, some compare the voting systems, which is again a bit odd when you consider you have three different juries from which to choose. The criteria for each is generally the same — who was the best athlete? — yet we sometimes get different outcomes because the voters are different.

The solution? Get back to the previous way and give athletes the allure of wanting to win a grand prize, not some segmented award that only caters to their subset of athletics events.

Award Winners Noah Lyles, girlfriend, Olympian Junelle Bromfield, Mondo Duplantis, girlfriend, Desire Inglander, photo by Mattia Ozbot

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