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The Toughest Job In Athletics

After a historic athletics season, choosing the 20 nominees for the 2016 World Athlete of the Year had to be one of the hardest jobs in track and field. Statistician Mark Butler was one of the five experts behind the long list and talks us through the process.

Coming up with the long list is a gradual process. Obviously we are not going to make our minds up until late in the season, but there are things that happen early on, before the Olympics, where you think ‘that’s going to be enough to get them on the list’.

I think we all consider the biggest events of the year, obviously the Olympics, the World Indoor Championships, world records, the Diamond League and probably world leads. And I would say pretty much in that order, because perhaps the most important thing in an Olympic year is to win an Olympic gold medal. The second most important is probably a world championship gold medal. And so regardless of world records and performances, that’s I think where we start looking.

The way we weigh them up against each other is virtually a matrix. Perhaps literally wouldn’t quite do it, but I’d have all the honours written down and then consider the win-loss record and the quality of the performances. So if you’ve broken a long-standing world record or produced the longest discus throw in 20 years, then that is obviously a notable achievement.

Some performances, even though they’ve been records, are more significant than others. I’d start to work out what the most important things were and then see how many of those particular boxes got ticked by athletes. And when you get to the end of the season, some athletes tick more boxes than you think. 

The good thing is there’s several of us going through this process, so normally we’d all collectively notice when something happens, when somebody’s kept an unbeaten season going. It would be noted by several statisticians and would be reported by the press. So these particular achievements will start to accumulate. We don’t sit down and ring each other up and say ‘look I think this athlete should be on the list’. They select themselves with their achievements and when those achievements are highlighted, you suddenly realise ‘this is something special’.

But it’s not just the numbers and stats. It’s respecting the breadth of athletics. We have to somehow compare the various disciplines with each other. A marathon runner only runs a couple of races per year. A shot putter competes maybe twenty times and a sprinter can race over more than just one distance. You do have to make an effort to make sure that you’re fair. And that goes for lots of things in athletics.

Some athletes quietly progress and build up really big seasons without sometimes being noticed. So you know the more the season goes on, the more work you have to do to make sure you haven’t missed anything like that.

One of the hardest things about the World Athlete of the Year is reminding people that we’re talking about what’s happened this year. I think a lot of sentimentality does sometimes confuse the picture. Someone might have won a large number of medals across their career, but they should be recognised for what they did in 2016 and not for those sentimental reasons. 

I do sometimes find myself looking back thinking ‘perhaps I should have put somebody else in there to nominate’, but then again, if you get more than one person going through the process that I have just described, you will come up with a very fair list. At the end of the day, we’re looking at a short list of three, and I’m sure that everybody who’s worthy of a place in the top three is in the top ten.

I wouldn’t necessarily say selecting the long list gives me a headache. The headache is presenting enough information. This is what statisticians will always want to do; to present as much available information as they can in a concise way. Brief but thorough, so everybody knows enough to make their decision.

The important thing for me is not so much the names on the list, but the bits of information that go with it – Olympic champion, world champion, Diamond Race winner, world record, unbeaten – not many words, but enough to give the gist of what people have done. And it is important to convey those things.

It has been incredibly high standards this year. But I think once the dust of the season settles and things fall into place like they have, you don’t really need too many statistics, people will know the quality when they see it.