Chanman's Blog

The Visa Championship Series

Visa is a proud sponsor of United States of America Track & Field (USATF). If you’ve ever tried to become a USATF member or buy something on their website, you know that the only credit card that USATF accepts is Visa. Forget “Don’t leave home without it.” “Priceless?” Not to USATF!

Part of this exclusivity is because Visa provides sponsorship money for things like the 2010 Indoor Visa Championships Series. The top male and top female each won $30,000. The respective runners-up earned $15,000 and the second runners-up earned $5,000. That’s $100,000 in prize money and that’s just for the indoor season.

The top American male finisher and top American female finisher in each event at Visa Championship Series meets have their performances assigned a point total based on the IAAF Scoring Tables of Athletics. The meets that made up the 2010 indoor series were the Millrose Games, the Boston Indoor Games and the USATF Indoor Championships. One caveat is that, although the winning performance can come from any one of the three meets, to be named the Visa Champion you must compete at the USA Indoor Championships. Because the indoor championships took place in Albuquerque, New Mexico at nearly 5,000 feet of elevation there was controversy over how the altitude could handicap the distance runners and put the sprinters at an advantage.

I don’t want to be too critical of anything that brings prize money and media attention to track & field athletes. However, the shortness of the series (just three meets) and the fact that you could win the prize by attending just the indoor championships, did take away some of the validity of naming a season champion. Not every event was contested at all three meets so in some cases an athlete’s only chance to compete and score in the series was at the indoor championships; other athletes had up to three chances to score in their event.

Also, a close examination of the results shows that the majority of the top performances came at the indoor championships. This makes sense in that a championship meet will usually bring out top performances.

The 2010 Visa Champions were Christian Cantwell (men’s shot put) and Amber Campbell (women’s weight throw). Cantwell’s winning mark in the shot put was his throw of 21.95 meters at the Millrose Games. Campbell’s winning of 24.70 meters at the indoor championships was a new meet record. Her event, the twenty pound weight throw was only contested at that meet. The top six scores in the women’s competition took place at the indoor championships. Six of the men’s top eight scores were from the championships. Certainly the majority of the top scoring performances happened in Albuquerque. The only distance runner to earn prize money was Bernard Lagat for his 5000 meter time from the Boston Indoor Games (which was an American record). The only distance runner to score a performance at the indoor championships that ranked in the top 10 was Anna (Willard) Pierce in ninth place for her 800 (2:00.84 for 1166 points).

This is the sixth year of the Visa Championships Series and the list of winners and their events is not very diverse, suggesting that the scoring system favors certain events. Of the twelve champions, five come from throwing events, six come from a sprint or hurdle event that takes between 7.06 and 7.88 seconds (60 meters or 60 meter hurdles), and only one is a distance runner (3000 meters). No jumper (high or long), no pole vaulter, no 400, 800, or 1500 meter runner has ever won. The six men’s champions have all been either shot putters or 60 meter hurdlers. Here is the list of champions:

Year Men’s Winner Event Mark Points   Women’s Winner Event Mark Points
2010 Christian Cantwell SP 21.95m 1238   Amber Campbell WT 24.70m 1213
2009 Terrence Trammell 60H 7.37 1259   Lolo Jones 60H 7.84 1202
2008 Adam Nelson SP 21.51m 1265   Lolo Jones 60H 7.88 1194
2007 Christian Cantwell SP 21.72m 1224   Shalane Flanagan 3000 8:33.25 1243
2006 Terrence Trammell 60H 7.46 1223   Lisa Barber 60 7.06 1212
2005 John Godina SP 21.83m 1230   Angela Diagle 60 7.09 1203

Flanagan, the only distance runner on the list of champions, recorded an American record in the 3000 to claim the Visa Series championship in 2007. Campbell’s 24.70 (2010), Trammell’s 7.37 (2009), and Godina’s 21.83 (2005) are all championship meet records.

Again, I don’t want to be too critical of the Visa Championships Series because it is great that Visa is paying out that kind of prize money. It’s great to see the excitement that it generates from the athletes. Campbell, who took the lead on day one of the championship series, was quoted on the USATF live blog that her “stomach is in knots waiting to find out if she will keep the lead.” That same USATF live blog said that Cantwell, known to be a funny guy, was mock cheering against the runners in the final race, the 60 meters, hoping to preserve his win. Apparently the announcer introduced him as the “official timekeeper” for the race. Having this kind of energy and excitement (with $30,000 at stake there is certainly going to be energy and excitement) is good for the sport.

Visa also sponsors the USATF Pick-N-Win game. Pick-N-Win participants pick one athlete per event and score points based on how their athletes places. Visa offers prizes ($2,500 in Visa gift cards) to these competitors too. I even saw a list of the leading Pick-N-Win players on television during the ESPN2 broadcast of the indoor championships. If you are wondering, the Track Widow edged out Chanman’s Irish 210-207 at the indoor championships.


Indoor Track and Field

Out here on the west coast, where the weather in January and February does not prevent you from training outside, indoor track & field seems more like an exhibition sport. But in other parts of the United States and internationally indoor track & field is a full-fledged championship sport.

This weekend is the USA Indoor Championships in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Competition will take place Saturday, February 27 and Sunday, February 28. Of note, Shannon Rowbury is entered in the 3000 meters (Saturday at 7:35 P.M. pacific time) and the 1500 meters (Sunday at 3:25 P.M. pacific time). Television coverage of the meet will be on ESPN2 on Sunday from 4:00-6:00 P.M. pacific time. This is not Shannon’s first time competing at the USA Indoor Championships. In 2008 in Boston she pulled what was then a bit of an upset by winning the 3000 meters.

The top two athletes in each event qualify to represent the USA at the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) World Indoor Championships. Some athletes choose to go and represent the USA and some choose to pass their qualifying spot. You may wonder why an athlete who qualifies would choose not to go to the World Championships. Athletes have to make a lot of tough decisions. Is the travel and consequent disruption in their training routine worth attending an international indoor meet? Some athletes may have very different goals than performing well at indoor meets. Other goals might be: outdoor races, a particular road race, or the upcoming IAAF World Cross Country Championships. In 2008, Shannon chose not to go the Indoor World Championships because she wanted to continue her training plan that was building towards achieving the Olympic “A” standard and preparing for the 2008 Olympic Trials.

The IAAF sanctions a World Indoor Track & Field Championship every even numbered year. The last one was in Valencia, Spain in 2008. The 13th annual championships will be in Doha, Qatar from March 12 to 14, 2010. The international indoor championships include sprints (60 and 400 meters), distance and middle distance (800, 1500 and 3000 meters), hurdles (60 meter hurdles), field events (high jump, long jump, triple jump, shot put and pole vault), relays (4X400 meter relay), and one combined event (heptathlon for men and pentathlon for women).

But back to the USA Championships. You can participate too, by playing the USATF’s Pick-N-Win Fantasy Game. You need to create a log-in but then you’ll have access to play. The deadline is Saturday at 1:55 P.M. The objective is to pick the winner for each event. There are drop down menus for each event with the most current list of entrants so you can easily make picks. You don’t have to be a track geek to do well – at the last meet Track Widow outpointed Chanman’s Irish 122 to 100!

The USA Indoor Championship is the third and final meet of the Visa Championship Series (the two previous meets were the Millrose Games and the Boston Indoor Games). The top American male finisher and top American female finisher in each event at Visa Championship Series meets have their performances assigned a point total based on the IAAF Scoring Tables of Athletics. At the conclusion of the USA Indoor Championships the top three men and top three women earn prize money (1st-$30,000; 2nd-$15,000; 3rd-$5,000). This competition is the Race for the Visa Championship. One caveat is that, although the winning performance can come from any one of the three meets, to be named the Visa Champion you must compete at the USA Indoor Championships. Heading into the final meet, sitting atop the women’s leaderboard is Ms. Rowbury with 1,172 points from her 8:47.14 performance in the 3,000 meters at the Boston Indoor Games.

A brewing controversy is the fact that Albuquerque is at nearly 5,000 feet of elevation, putting the distance runners at a decided disadvantage in terms of achieving a high score on the IAAF scoring tables. This has led to an outcry from many stating that this is unfair. Shannon’s chances of remaining the leader could very much be affected by the elevation. A sprinter or field event athlete, who actually benefits from the thin air, could put up a top mark and pass her in the standings. Even if Shannon wins her event, her mark is likely to score less points on the IAAF table than the sprinter’s or field event athlete’s mark because the altitude will cause her time to be slower than it would have been at sea level. Because of this very real possibility that Shannon could lose out on some prize money due to the altitude, her coach, John Cook, has been leading the charge to get the scoring to include an adjustment for altitude. In an interview with this week Cook said:

“At altitude, you aren’t going to run good times if you are a distance runner – that’s like breathing through a straw. But the sprinters are going to come to altitude and they are going to rock. It’s a huge advantage (to sprint at altitude).“

“Everyone I’ve talked to at USATF agrees with me and says we need to make changes, then they say don’t know how to do (the altitude adjustment). Well there are books out there. There is a green book out there. There is an IAAF book out there. I’m not the smartest guy in the world but I can figure this out. And if I can figure it out, everyone can.”

But on Tuesday, USATF CEO Doug Logan released a statement that said that there will be no altitude adjustment for the distance events.

How many of you don’t follow indoor track & field at all and didn’t even know the USA Championships were this weekend? After reading this, I hope I’ve sparked a little interest and you’ll play the Pick-N-Win game, watch the meet on television or follow it on the internet and look up the Visa Champion on Monday and see if the altitude made a difference.