If you’ve been paying the slightest attention to this column over the years, you have probably worked out that I’m a big fan of the annual Track & Field News rankings.
There’s lots of rankings lists going round now – imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, and all that – but the annual T&FN rankings remain the original, and the best, of the annual top-10 lists.
Originating in 1947 with the first men’s rankings, for most of the intervening time the US magazine, which styles itself as The Bible of the Sport, has had a lock on the annual rankings. Other publications and organisations have increasingly muscled their way into the arena in recent times – including the IAAF – but, for me, anyway, T&FN’s compilations remain the most prestigious.
The women’s rankings are a different matter. Reflecting the glacial pace at which our sport moved to full gender equality (well, full-ish: it’s not quite there even yet, you’d have to say); the women’s rankings did not appear until 1956 and, even then, were initiated by Czech statistician Jan Popper. Full men’s and women’s rankings were not integrated into the magazine until the 1980s.
My love affair with the rankings started pretty well the first time I set eyes on them, which would have been around 1983 when I first took out a subscription to the magazine. The rankings were something to be devoured as soon as the annual edition landed in your mailbox, usually some weeks after publication. Don’t worry about Trump’s shutdown of the US government, I reckon the division of the US postal system which handles international magazine deliveries has been shut down for years.
I used to do a story on the Australians who made the rankings from very early on in my career at The Age. For a track and field nut, it was, as one of my Aussie Rules colleagues used to say of player disciplinary panel hearings, a walk-up start for a story.
I would ring a contact at the magazine on the day it was published in the US and get him to talk me through the Aussies who had made the lists. Occasionally, this arrangement would ruffle some feathers in the editorial department but, mostly, it was one more story appearing in Australian media about Track & Field News magazine than the publication normally got (i.e. nil).
Now that things come to us electronically, no-one steals a march on the story, which I don’t think has appeared since I retired in any case. But still, my first priority is to race through the lists tallying up the Australian rankers. As Runners Tribe readers will know, a column almost always follows.
For those who still pine for the paper version of the magazine, there have been compensations. Online publishing, for one thing, removes arbitrary restrictions caused by page size. It makes little difference if a story runs for 400 or 500 words in digital version (provided the story is of interest to begin with!), but one hundred extra words makes a hell of a difference when things are being measured in column centimetres (or, probably, inches in the USA).
One such compensation this year has been an in-depth analysis of the rankings both contemporary, and historical. While they might be just numbers of a chart, there is something magical about working out who has the most rankings points in an event, or overall; who has the most appearances, again, by event and overall; and who has ranked in the top 10 for the highest number of years consecutively.
As I wrote in the rankings column which appeared late last year, Danni Stevens has now ranked in the women’s discus 11 years in a row. Should she go on to get a top-10 rank again this year, Stevens would join one of the event’s all-time greats, 1972 Olympic champion Faina Melnik, in being ranked in 12 consecutive years.
Across all women’s events, two athletes have ranked 18 times consecutively. Surprisingly, given that field eventers dominate the longevity lists in general, both are track athletes – Maria Mutola in the 800 metres and Merlene Ottey in both the 100 and 200.
The other Australian women to fare well on an aggregate basis are Pam Ryan, whose 95 points in the sprint hurdles ties her with Gail Devers as the highest scorer ever in that event, Cathy Freeman, whose 61 makes her eighth-highest in the 400, Sally Pearson and Kerry Saxby Junna, whose 66 put them seventh and fifth in the hurdles and 20km walk, respectively. Claire Tallent is third in the 50km walk, but that event was ranked for the first time in 2018.
It’s all endurance athletes on the men’s side. Ron Clarke shares fifth place with Mo Farah, both on 59 points, on the aggregate lists at 5000 metres, and his 64 (Farah again 59) sees him fourth to Mo’s fifth at 10,000. In the marathon, Rob de Castella’s 48 points puts him in a tie with Bill Rodgers and Frank Shorter for fifth place and Jared Tallent tallies 67 for sixth in the 50km walk.
And, perhaps to put all rankings into perspective – they don’t correlate with honours won – you would be going pretty well if you can name the highest points scorer in men’s marathon history. With 65, that would be Finland’s Veikko Karvonen, Olympic bronze medallist in Melbourne in 1956, European champion in 1954 and also a winner at Boston, Athens and Fukuoka.
Perhaps it’s not such a surprise once you know all that!
If you want to know more, take out a sub to Track & Field News.
Cover photo: Sydney Athletics Grand Prix SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA – MARCH 17: Dani Stevens of NSW competes in the Women’s Discus during the 2018 Sydney Athletics Grand Prix at Sydney olympic Park Athletics Centre on March 17, 2018 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Zak Kaczmarek/Getty Images)