What makes the Athlete of the Year

As the year draws to an end many organisations choose their ‘Athlete of the Year’. Even though I am Dutch champion 100km ultramarathon I didn’t receive a single nomination, not even on a long-list. This made me question: What makes the ‘Athlete of the Year’, isn’t it a popularity contest in disguise and am I not popular?

The first thing that struck me with most ‘athlete of the year’ competitions is all competitors are listed with their results in international races. It’s clear to me results play a role in becoming athlete of the year, but how do you compare results? On the short distances the competition is fierce, yet it is possible to run many races and increase your chances of getting one or more good results, but then there is ultramarathon. World Athletics has recognised 100 kilometre as an official distance almost twenty years ago in 2003, until then 50 kilometre race walking was the longest official distance, which is also an Olympic discipline. Even though it has almost been 20 years and the 100km ultramarathon distance has grown massively in popularity, it is still far, far away from any of its athletes appearing in on athlete of the year competitions. 

The podium of Dutch 100km Championships

I might have suggested that I feel like I should be athlete of the year, but I actually feel I’m far away. Yes, I ám Dutch national champion for 100km road running, but there’s one person in my opinion who deserves the nomination and maybe even the title. The Dutch athletics association (Atletiekunie) has ‘objective’ standards to decide who is on the long-list, yet Piet Wiersma did not make it, despite meeting said standards with his bronze medal on the 100km World Championships. There also completely different reason I think Piet should considered athlete of the year. Piet has performed his feat without coaching, sponsorships or support whatsoever against full-time profession athletes. For me it is not only about performance, but also the story behind the athlete.

This again poses many problems: what is a good story? What is it we are looking for in a story? Is it inspiration? What makes one story more inspirational than the other? Is it a story that inspires you that you can do anything you want? Then how about the Dutch Triathlon Federation (Nederlandse Triathlon Bond) choosing para-triathlete Jetze Plat as their athlete of the year in 2019. Not para-athlete-, but overall athlete of the year. Of course it’s inspiring that a ‘disabled’ person can do sports at this level, but if there’s anything that’s inaccessible for the biggest part of the population it’s para-sports. Also it does not compare very well to the other disciplines either. I have nothing but huge respect for Jetze Plat, both as an athlete and as a person, but we also have to try to add some objectivity and ascertain the pool for para-athletes is not very big.

Piet Wiersma at the IUA 100km World Championship

Then does the number of people doing a certain sport determine which athletes qualify to become athlete of the year? This year the Dutch Athletics Federation choose Femke Bol as athlete of the year. Among other titles she won the 400m track European title, a race with a grand total of 35 athletes. Of course the athletes had to qualify to earn their spot in the national team, but the same holds true for the 100km road world championships and this race had almost 400 athletes on the start-line.

It turns out to be very hard to establish objective or even subjective standards to determine who should be athlete of the year for any given sport. Except for that one standard I mentioned in the introduction: popularity. Here’s an example of the shortlist for athlete of the year of the Dutch athletics association (Atletiekunie) and their instagram followers: Jessica Schilder ( 2767 followers), Femke Bol (146.000 followers) and Nienke Brinkman 23.900 followers). You can guess who won. The same holds true for both male and female athletes of the year in triathlon in the Netherlands by platform 3athlon.nl (Maya Kingma 6223 followers; Lotte Wilms 2412 followers; Diede Diederiks no Instagram and for the men Youri Keulen 3600; Niek Heldoorn 2140; Wouter Dijkshoorn 224). Again you can guess the who the winners were. The number of Instragram followers as a measure for popularity seem to correlate with the winners of Athlete of the Year competitions. 

Once nominated for an Athlete of the Year title, the popularity of an Athlete seems to play a big role in winning said title. Although I don’t think the number of Instagram followers is the only determinant in winning, all the evidence I reviewed does comply with this theory. So how about me? I díd win a national title and I won medals in international races in which national records were broken, but I didn’t receive any nominations. And even if I did, I don’t really see myself as popular, I’m more an acquired taste.