World Athletics has announced the introduction of a "repechage round" which will debut at the Paris 2024 Olympic Games. This will see track athletes who compete in events ranging from 200m to 1,500m, including hurdles, being given a second chance to qualify for the semi-finals of their event.
This announcement was made in July 2022 by World Athletics and will differ from the traditional automatic time qualifiers, or "fastest losers" advancing to the semi-finals. Essentially some athletes will now compete in four rounds instead of three (round one, repechage round, semi-finals and the final). The 100m events have a preliminary heat before round one and the repechage was therefore excluded for these events.
This announcement has led to numerous questions and calls for clarification, as there are concerns surrounding the impact on recovery and performance, the likelihood of injuries and the anticipated strain on sports practitioners to focus more energy and time on faster or more efficient recovery and preparing athletes for possibly more events.
If an athlete participates in a 200m repechage round due to poor performance in the heats and makes it to the semi-finals and the finals, that athlete would have had to be prepared for four different races, as opposed to the three that are customary. What this means for the athlete is exposure to greater physiological stress and depending on how the events are scheduled, they may be exposed to muscle fatigue, poor recovery and an increased risk of injuries.
For athletes competing in the 1,500m events, this concern is magnified, as it is a more demanding event and requires a longer recovery period. Will World Athletics strongly consider timing between these repechage rounds and the semi-finals to give these athletes an equal opportunity at recovery, as for those who would have qualified for the semi-finals from the heats? Is this a real second chance at medalling or just an increased chance of a career-ending injury? We wait to see how World Athletics will deal with this issue when scheduling events.
Modern athletics has seen athletes competing in two and even three events in one championship. For example, it is not uncommon for the relay teams to be comprised of athletes who competed in the sprints, or for persons to compete in both the 100m and 200m sprints. Depending on their performance in round one, these athletes will now have not just one, but several additional rounds when considered across events. Will scheduling take this into account? Overwork and injury once again become a concern. Is it possible that the implementation of the repechage round may force organisations to limit athletes to one event only.
Another major question that has not been addressed is the concern regarding false starts; will athletes who false start also be given a second opportunity in a repechage round to prove him or herself? A false start is synonymous with a poor start and therefore should be treated similarly. Also, whilst a reason is given for the exclusion of the 100m, what is the reason for the 1,500m cut-off?
How will this major change be integrated by sports organisations? The plan is to be implemented in Paris 2024, which does not leave much time for organisations, athletes and coaches to conduct trial runs to figure out how this will all work and the impact it will have on athletes' performance.
Sports practitioners will also need to have first-hand experience of what will be required of the athletes and to figure out the best strategies to mitigate against injury should they find themselves covering athletes who will participate in the repechage round. Many teams in our region may only have one physical therapist/doctor assigned to work with the team, so having these additional rounds included for multiple events may place significant pressure on already overworked staff.
Sports management teams must begin to consider whether they will need to source additional help, if at all even economically feasible, as they prepare for the 2024 Olympics.
The concept of the repechage round is not totally new and is used in wrestling and taekwondo at the Olympics. These sports are, however, quite different from track events and whilst there may be applicable lessons from the implementation of the repechage round for those events, there may be different challenges for track.
Whereas a repechage round might benefit an athlete psychologically and give them the opportunity of a second chance at proving themselves, there are measures that must be put in place to ensure that this implementation protects the wellbeing of our athletes and the integrity of the sport. The world of athletics waits with bated breath for further updates from World Athletics about the intricacies of the repechage round implementation and how it will benefit athletics.
Maurice Fisher is a medical doctor who is pursuing a master's degree in Sports Medicine at the UWI Faculty of Sport.