Mike Rowbottom ©ITG

On Thursday (May 13) Doha is due to host the opening Diamond League meeting of the season at the Qatar Sports Club Stadium.

This compact arena played venue to the very first Diamond League meeting on May 14, 2010, since when the series, while retaining its core aspiration of being the main circuit for international athletics outside Championship events, has undergone significant alteration.

I was reporting on that hot and humid evening - that’s something that hasn’t and won’t change whenever this event comes to the Qatari capital - and witnessed highlights including a 9.75 seconds 100 metres victory by Jamaica’s Asafa Powell, after a heat win of 9.81, and a men’s 800m victory by Kenya’s soon-to-be Olympic champion and world record holder David Rudisha in 1min 43.00sec.

Rudisha’s compatriot Eliud Kipchoge - who would soon make something of a name for himself in marathon running - won a dramatically close 5,000 metres in 12min 51.21sec from fellow countryman Vincent Chepkok, who clocked 12:51.45.

In the women’s events, United States athletes Lolo Jones and Allyson Felix won the 100m hurdles and 400m respectively in 12.63 and 50.15, while in field events Croatia’s double world high jump champion Blanka Vlasic won on countback from Chaunte Lowe of the United States after both had cleared 1.98 metres, and the Czech Republic’s Olympic javelin champion Barbora Spotakova earned victory with an effort of 67.33m.

The series, instituted under the auspices of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), which became World Athletics in 2019, superseded the previous vehicle for the elite athletics circuit, the IAAF Golden League.

It comprised 14 one-day meetings involving 16 men’s and 16 women’s events, with the highest points winner in each of the 32 categories - named Diamond Races - earning a Diamond Trophy and prize money from the total available figure of $6.63 million (£5.37 million/€6.29 million), with $10,000 (£8,100/€9,400) on offer for meeting winners, and $40,000 (£32,400/€38,000) for Diamond Trophy winners.

The Diamond Trophy went to the athlete in each discipline who accrued the most points throughout the season, with double points being awarded for the final, which was effectively in two parts as the competition events were shared by the Van Damme Memorial meeting in Brussels and Zurich’s Weltklasse meeting.

Twelve years on the template remains largely the same - although in fact overall event winners now get only $30,000 (£24,400/€28,400) - but, within the World Athletics era, the series has been addressed with a more energetic, experimental and on occasions controversial manner.

Among the simpler and widely accepted innovations has been the decision to stage just one final - although this has brought with it some unavoidable logistical and broadcasting issues.

Samsung were title sponsors for the first three editions, after which the series continued without a major sponsor until Chinese multinational group Wanda signed up in 2019 for a 10-year deal starting in 2020 - the biggest commercial partnership in the history of the sport.

Wanda’s arrival was ill-starred given the simultaneous arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic which drastically reduced events in 2020 and which, after its recent resurgence in China, led to the announcement on Friday (May 6) that the two planned Chinese Diamond League meetings in Shanghai and Shenzhen had been cancelled, just as they were last year.

Kenya's marathon world record holder and trailblazer Eliud Kipchoge won the 5,000m at the first ever Diamond League event in Doha 12 years ago ©Getty Images
Kenya's marathon world record holder and trailblazer Eliud Kipchoge won the 5,000m at the first ever Diamond League event in Doha 12 years ago ©Getty Images

Into the breach has stepped the Silesia meeting which has its main domain in the swiftly growing second tier of the circuit, the World Athletics Continental Tour Gold meetings.

As World Athletics chief executive Jon Ridgeon acknowledged, it has been a uniquely frustrating start for the new sponsors.

"I’ve got to say they’ve been brilliant," Ridgeon told insidethegames. Because since they signed up in 2019 and started their involvement physically in 2020 it’s been hugely frustrating for us all. We’ve not been able to stage the events in China. But they’ve been really good about it.

"But one of the advantages of signing a long-term deal is that you can have a slightly more balanced view of things, so yes, it’s frustrating, but there are still plenty more years when Wanda can have that Chinese involvement.

"Ultimately they are buying into a global series. The series was compromised in 2020 although we managed to get a good number of events away, but last year we pretty much got the whole thing away and this year we’ll be able to do the same thing again.

"So they are buying into that global reach and it still works for them, albeit they still can’t deliver the two Chinese meets we had planned. But that will change and we will be back there in a year’s time.

"There were a number of years when the Diamond League didn’t have a global sponsor and it was a demonstration of the strength of the product ultimately that a big global brand was wanting to sign up for it.

"If you look at the Diamond League revenues over the years they haven’t necessarily increased to the level we would want them to, because we want to pay the athletes more and it’s a real key focus.

"In the same way that we are paying the athletes more money than we ever have before in the World Championships we want to do the same across the Diamond League. Because one of our big motivations is making sure that being a professional athlete is a way of making a viable living.

"It’s a competitive world out there and track and field athletes are generally pretty good at other sports as well so we are very aware of the responsibility of making sure you can make a good living out of athletics, and the Diamond League is a central element to that. But we’ve still got a long way to go."

Asked to assess the overall trajectory of the Diamond League series, Ridgeon, who took up his present position in December 2018 but who had negotiated for two British meetings to be part of the inaugural Diamond League series on behalf of the FastTrack promotions group, added: "I don’t think the fundamentals of the Diamond League have changed, although it’s about driving change as well as being that premier series shop window.

"What has changed - if you were sitting round the table in the Diamond League board room or General Assembly I think you would see there’s also a desire to become a kind of incubator or driver of innovation as well.

"So we are unashamed of some of the ideas that we’ve introduced over the last three years. Some have worked, some haven’t worked so well.

"But I think that’s really good. It’s always driven by some underlying research. It’s not people sitting in offices thinking ‘Oh, let’s have a go at this.’ It’s always driven by the fundamentals of trying to make the Diamond League that shop window for athletes and making the sport as entertaining as possible. And that’s what we want to continue."

After a burst of ideas broke upon the sport in November 2019, just before the pandemic swept in with its huge and unavoidable changes, Ridgeon admitted to insidethegames in December 2020 that the federation was ready to curb its enthusiasm a touch after a hot summer in which the independent representative body The Athletics Association (TAA), formed up multiple world and Olympic triple jump champion Christian Taylor, made its strong feelings known about some of the proposals.

On December 4 2020 the Wanda Diamond League announced that the 2021 series would include all the disciplines that had been scheduled to be removed from its top tier programme in 2020 before the coronavirus pandemic prompted a radically re-shaped set of meetings.

The full programme of 32 events - which would have been reduced to 24 in 2020 - was restored for 2021, with the live broadcasting slot returning to two hours’ duration from its proposed reduction to 90 minutes.

"I think it was a number of influences that caused us to step back from one or two of the plans we had for this year - like the 90-minute window, like the reduction of the number of disciplines," Ridgeon explained.

"It was important what the athletes had to say, but it was equally important what the broadcasters had to say, because they pay most of the bills.

"Athletics is a traditional sport, and changes can be painful. Perhaps last year there were a number of changes on the table at once and perhaps that was too much."

Had 2020 gone as per programme the triple jump and discus would have been dropped from the Diamond League, being relegated to the newly created World Athletics Continental Tour, while the 200 metres and 3,000m steeplechase would have been only partially present without being scoring events for the final, and the 5,000m would effectively have been replaced by 3,000m races.

After two years of controversy the revamped Final Three format for throwing and jumping events in one-day Diamond League meetings has been hybridised to suit all parties this year ©Getty Images
After two years of controversy the revamped Final Three format for throwing and jumping events in one-day Diamond League meetings has been hybridised to suit all parties this year ©Getty Images

The news of this major revision of its programme by World Athletics was welcomed by the TAA group that had formed largely in reaction to the planned reductions.

Ridgeon revealed that changes to the plans formulated in November 2019 had begun in earnest in August and September of 2020.

"That’s when the intensity of regular conversations with all our key stakeholders really began," he said.

"Some of our key Diamond League broadcasters said to us that actually, do you know, we quite like the two-hour window.

"And also the fact that there were a number of groups, including some of the broadcasters and certainly some of the athletes, saying ‘we want all the disciplines back in as well.

"One of the reasons for that was that it is so difficult at the start of the year to predict which disciplines are going to be hot and which aren’t.

"So you might end up excluding a discipline that ends up being a real hot event.

"Clearly to include all the disciplines - and it’s still a struggle by the way - but in order to do that you need a two-hour window and not a 90-minute window."

Assessing the position now, Ridgeon said: "Over the years we’ve tried to refine the product so it is a better one.

"So initially you won the Diamond League in each discipline by getting the most points. Now you have to win the final, so there’s more jeopardy in the final.

Norway's Olympic 400m hurdles champion and world record holder Karsten Warholm displays his Diamond Trophy after last summer's single event Final in Zurich ©Getty Images
Norway's Olympic 400m hurdles champion and world record holder Karsten Warholm displays his Diamond Trophy after last summer's single event Final in Zurich ©Getty Images

"We had two finals, and people didn’t really understand that now we have one final, which will be in Zurich this year and at the Prefontaine Classic next year.

"We’ve managed to expand into four continents, so it’s now a true global series, not just about track and field in Europe, where traditionally the strong meets have been.

"We’ve worked really hard with all the broadcasters to make sure the product is more consistent and it’s a better, faster-paced product."

Ridgeon explained how a large-scale commission into public opinion research was undertaken in 2019.

"There were a number of themes that came out of that, such as one final rather than two. There was also a view that, for example, it was difficult to follow some of the field events and they didn’t get the coverage or profile they deserved because track tended to dominate the two-hour broadcasting window because we were trying to shoehorn all of the disciplines into that."

This led to the proposal of the Final Three model in throws and jumps, in which, initially, the top three performers were the only ones who proceeded to the final round, at which point previous efforts were wiped and the winner was the one who performed best with their last effort.

On some occasions, which did not go unnoticed, the winning effort was not the best achieved on the day.

Addressing the issue of the Final Three, Ridgeon said: "This idea was based on the feedback of a lot of people. In Championships the traditional model is fine because there is more time and the event can actually breathe.

"But within a fast-paced Diamond League it’s really difficult, certainly if you are at home watching the broadcast, to really get a sense of field events. Because it was quite inconsistent in terms of how they were covered - often just a reprise after the competition had finished, which wasn’t very good.

"What we tried to do with Final Three was to create a moment where everything stopped, both in the stadium and broadcast, and you could see the really dramatic moment when the ‘medals’ were to be handed out.

"Now we’ve ended up with a hybrid Final Three which will run this summer, and I think it’s landed in the right place although it’s taken us a couple of years to get there.

"When we started off there was a degree of pushback from the athletes. But it ended up being a really collaborative programme and a good template for the future.

"Because in the end we said to the athletes, ‘You’re clearly not embracing this, but why don’t you work with us to try and find a model that really works?’ And they said ‘OK, we’ll run with it this summer and then we’ll all sit together in the same room and decide what the best model is.’ And that’s what we did.

Ferdinand Omanyala's 100m victory in Nairobi yesterday underlined the growing success of this event in the Continental Tour Gold meetings category ©Getty Images
Ferdinand Omanyala's 100m victory in Nairobi yesterday underlined the growing success of this event in the Continental Tour Gold meetings category ©Getty Images

"The broadcasters - some were very supportive, some were more sceptical. The athletes said, ‘we like the profile, but we still believe in the concept that the longest throw or jump should win the competition’. They felt that was fundamental.

"So we said ‘Fine. How do we try and combine that?’ And that’s what I hope we’ve done for this summer, where we will still have a focus on the final round with the top three competing in reverse order while everything stops. But ultimately the result will be, if you did the longest throw or jump in round one, you win."

Reviewing the now superseded idea of dropping certain events from the Diamond League into the second tier, Ridgeon pointed out that the concept was not a new one - this operated during the IAAF Golden League years.

"We didn’t want to be in a situation where we had been in the past where we perhaps put on a discus event in the afternoon in an empty stadium because we had the responsibility to cover all events.

"We wanted to move away from that and have a proper event where every competition within that two-hour slot had a moment to breathe and have a profile. So that’s why we went to the difficult decision of saying, in some years we are not going to have all disciplines.

"Now clearly that was not very popular with athletes, so in the end we decided, ‘OK, we’re listening.’

"Because one of the reasons the Diamond League is so important to the sport is it provides their day-to-day living for the athletes. So we said ‘let’s go back to trying to include every discipline’, which we’re doing.

"But it’s a challenge because you could really do with six-hour meets, but six-hour meets don’t really work for live television. But that’s where the idea came from. But we listened, and if ultimately doesn’t want it we find another solution. No one’s reputation is on the line here where we are saying 'we have got to stick with this idea.'"

As this week’s news has made clear, there is an increasingly strong foundation for the Wanda Diamond League in the relatively new form of the Continental Tour with its gold, silver, bronze and - as of this season - Challenger tiers.

"It’s not quite like football promotion and relegation, but the strength of the Tour mean there are meets jockeying for position to join the Diamond League, as we saw when the two Chinese meets had to drop out this year.

"It also means that if meets do drop out of the Diamond League they don’t go into oblivion, they can simply go into a rational, recognised tour as well.

"It’s helping a lot. Hopefully the one-day meeting system is becoming more logical and supportive of each other. Over the next 10 years I think we will see some meets dropping out of the Diamond League and others coming in, and I think that’s good."

Trayvon Bromell and Ferdinand Omanyala ran the sixth and seventh fastest times of all time at last year's Kip Keino Classic, a World Athletics Continental Tour Gold event ©Getty Images
Trayvon Bromell and Ferdinand Omanyala ran the sixth and seventh fastest times of all time at last year's Kip Keino Classic, a World Athletics Continental Tour Gold event ©Getty Images

The Continental Tour, established in 2020, initially shored up what was becoming an increasingly lamentable scene in the lower tiers of meetings, with many old established names having faded away over the years, finished off by the pandemic.

In terms of prize money, Gold meetings have a fund of $200,000 (£162,000/€190,000), Silver meetings $75,000 (£60,700/€71,100), Bronze meetings $25,000 (£20,000/€24,000) and Challenger meets - which have already expanded to around 70 meetings - anywhere under that last figure.

In 2019, the last normal year of athletics, there were about 10 meetings in the entire continent of the North American, Central American and Caribbean Athletic Association, of which only two were engaged with World Athletics. This year that figure is 40.

This year also saw a first Gold meeting take place in Bermuda, opening the series, while Nairobi has also been a startling new prospect over the past three years in the form of the Kip Keino Classic.

The addition of elite sprint races to the traditional core of middle distance and endurance events has taken advantage of the rarified atmosphere of the Kenyan capital with eye-catching results.

Last year Trayvon Bromell of the United States and home sprinter Ferdinand Omanyala produced respective times of 9.76 and 9.77sec, the sixth and seventh fastest of all time. Yesterday Omanyala won in Nairobi in 9.85, after Jamaica’s double Olympic champion Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce had run 10.67, fractions away from the sea level 10.60 she ran in Lausanne last summer which puts her third on the all-time list.

The Nairobi meeting arrived with the Continental Tour. Another success story is the meeting in Bydgoszcz, where the suggestion of moving up to become a Gold meeting prompted the city Mayor to up the meeting’s annual prize fund from $25,000 to $200,000.

That’s new prize money coming into the pockets of athletes.

The Continental Tour is growing rapidly. In 2020 there were 28 meetings, including seven Gold. In 2021 the figure rose to 69, with 12 Golds, and this year it will be 145, again with 12 Golds.

The Tour now provides an Olympic pathway for 80 per cent of athletes. Last year it involved 6682 athletes from 147 countries in all its meetings.

All in all, the Diamond League has a more secure setting than ever.