Gut Reaction To The World Athletics Ultimate Championship

By David Melly

June 5, 2024

Say what you will about our esteemed governing body, but you can’t deny that World Athletics is always looking for new ways to mix things up in track and field.

The big news out of Monaco this week was the announcement of the World Athletics Ultimate Championships, a biennial (that’s every two years, for you biennial-biannual-confused readers) championship set to trade off years with the traditional World Athletics Championships beginning in 2026. Budapest, Hungary, was named as the inaugural host city for the three-day competition that offers $10 million in total prize money and seems to be a hybrid of the weeklong global championships and the two-day Diamond League final.

Cringey name aside (as far as we can tell, there won’t be any frisbee or mixed-martial arts), there’s a lot to unpack about this news. The takeaway that potential competitors will leave with, of course, is the money: $150,000 for first isn’t pocket change, even for the most well-heeled pros in the sport. Normally, you’ve gotta hit the roads and pick up a World Marathon Major title for that kind of one-off payday, and that entails, well… being a marathoner. For comparison, Paris Olympic champions will receive $50,000 for first place (for the first time ever) and 2023 World champions received $70,000 for standing atop the podium.

Budapest is a strong choice for hosting duties after the success of Worlds in 2023. The stadium was consistently packed and easy to access; the city is easy to get to from anywhere in Europe and, frankly, no harder to get to from most of the U.S. than Eugene. Festivities are expected to kick off on September 11, which would be two weeks after the Diamond League final but not so far removed from the rest of the season that it would markedly change the contours of a normal training cycle.

But there are plenty of questions that remain. How will the second World Athletics Ultimate Championship compete for attention and significance with the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles? Why is a totally new event needed rather than beefing up the Diamond League or slimming down Worlds? We asked ourselves some of these questions earlier this week.

The WA press release is full of interesting, but vague, tidbits. “Athletes will also benefit from greater promotional rights, allowing them to commercially activate and enhance their personal profiles” sounds like fun, but if this championship is subject to the same sponsor blackout rules as others, there will surely be an upper limit to how “activated” competitors are really willing to be. “Selections based primarily on world rankings” could be a promising way to beef up the impact of the world ranking system and its stated goal of incentivizing head-to-head racing in the regular season, but “primarily” is doing a heckuva lot of heavy lifting in that sentence and more clarity is needed.

Here at the Lap Count we try not to be reflexively resistant to change. Trying something new is always worth at least one shot, and committing significant financial resources at least means you’re not preemptively setting the event up for failure. If we’re going to see some outside-the-box thinking, it would be nice to see a little more of an emphasis on regular-season competition. Casual fans already care about the end of the season, but year-round attention is a rarer commodity. But just because this particular initiative wasn’t cooked up in the CITIUS MAG think tank doesn’t mean it’s not worth giving it a chance and keeping up an open mind.

So we’ll be tuning in – and hopefully returning to Budapest in person – in hopes that the World Athletics Super Duper Ultra Extra Special Ultimate Championship is just the shot in the arm the sport needs.

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David Melly

David began contributing to CITIUS in 2018, and quickly cemented himself as an integral part of the team thanks to his quick wit, hot takes, undying love for the sport and willingness to get yelled at online.