Monday, 24 March 2008

Have we the Vision?

In the days before the 1982 European Championships in Athens the IAAF called a special Congress to discuss the future of the sport. Britain was to spearhead the drive for open athletics and the man chosen to make the crucial speech was the late Andy Norman, the hard-talking British entrepreneurial promoter already a dominant figure in what was becoming known as the European circuit.

Andy knew how important this speech was. He knew that if the Congress failed to accept the concept of open athletics and of payments to athletes then the world of “shamateurism” involving the world’s best runners could well destroy the sport that he loved. What Andy wanted was help in moulding his thoughts into a cohesive, telling speech. He turned to John Rodda of the Guardian, one of the most respected of sports writers.

The two men sat on Rodda’s room balcony at the Hotel Olympic in very warm sunshine. It was early morning and Rodda had had an ultra convivial evening with colleagues the night before; he had forgotten about the arrangement with Norman. The shrill ringing of his bedside phone therefore came as something of a shock. Now as he sipped orange juice to help his dehydration John listened and took notes as Andy hammered home his crucial points. He converted them and typed them into tough, cogent, convincing words and handed the script over. Rodda went back to bed and Norman was ready to conquer the Congress.

Two other factors were in his favour. The year before the new President, Primo Nebiolo, had powered (some say elbowed) his way to the most important post in world athletics. Nebiolo realised that, to survive, athletics had to come into the twentieth century, had to accept some form of professionalism. Secondly, many of those sitting in the Congress hall were former athletes who knew that Andy knew that they had enjoyed financial fruits from their athletic labours. It would be an intelligent guess to think that some arm twisting had gone on.

It is important to remember that athletics had fiercely fought professionalism for a century with some of the great names of track left strewn around the battlefield; men like Walter George, Alfred Shrubb, William Snook (see earlier Blog), Paavo Nurmi, Gunder Hägg, Arne Anderson and finally in the mid-1950’s the American miler, Wes Santee - all banished for succumbing to the temptations of Mammon in brown envelopes.

The federations, including the IAAF had, after Santee, turned a blind eye to “illegal” payments and by the time Congress met in Athens it was an open secret that hundreds of thousands of dollars from the promoters of major European meetings had entered the pockets of star athletes; unless action was taken the IAAF could lose control of the sport.

In the end Congress accepted the majority of the proposals but there were crucial caveats: it baulked at prize money, it hid payments to athletes behind words like ‘subventions’ and ‘trust funds’. It took just the minimum measures required to save itself. The spirit of de Coubertin was (and is) still embedded in the collective psyche of the sport.

The reason for re-telling this episode is to not only show how important the moment was for athletics but also to indicate how the moment was lost. By not biting the bullet and opting for a dynamic professional sport at levels lower than the glitzy, razzmatazz projected world championships and grand prix meetings, the delegates at the Athens congress stifled all competitive development for twenty-six years.

If an athletics supremo from some far off planet visited Earth every twenty years or so to see what progress had been made he or she would gain a distinct sense of déjá-vu and disappointment. They would note the continuing tremendous enthusiasm and excitement engendered in stadia and on television by the major championships and in some rare cases by the grand prix events but they would also note that in each country it was but a fleeting annual glimpse of the very best that track and field had to offer.. The difference between what is served up on the IAAF World Athletics Tour and what is provided in domestic competition is as stark as it can be.

In 2002 the Commonwealth Games came to Manchester; it was a glorious week of competition that thrilled stadium and television audiences. Everybody wanted more; they didn’t get it. The stadium was handed over to a major football club because everyone realised that British athletics was incapable of providing regular, sustainable, exciting competition for public enjoyment. It is the same story in London, host city for the 2012 Olympics remember, where the only meeting to rouse the public is a Super Grand Prix meeting every August. All other meetings (from which international athletes are conspicuous by their absence) are so long, tedious and self-indulgent that the general public never attends, indeed is rarely notified of them. Nothing has changed in four decades.

Internationally the sport has tried to review competition but not so you’d notice. Early in 2005 I spoke at an IAAF conference on one-day meetings and the World Athletics Final where representatives of the IAAF, promoters, managers, athletes and coaches all contributed. We all said that the sport was failing the athletes, television and the public; we said that the grand prix meetings were too repetitive and becoming old hat; we urged the re-introduction of international matches and much more. Television representatives were particularly scathing.

The world governing body nodded sagely and said that it had listened and would cogitate. It has proved to be not only a dialogue with the deaf but with the blind as well, for the only real change has been to move the World Athletics Final from Monaco to Stuttgart. Meanwhile television viewing figures are plunging world wide. In a recent contest for coverage on the BBC (a staunch supporter of athletics) with the FA Cup and Six Nations Rugby, the World Indoor Championships from Valencia lost out badly gaining just half an hour of terrestrial coverage on the Friday night; the rest was confined to satellite inter-active. The Golden League, as it is now named, was once a given on terrestrial television, then it moved to satellite and, in Britain, is now only available on pay-per-view.

Britain too decided that a review of competition was needed. Former European 5000m champion Jack Buckner was assigned the task. He produced two preliminary reports with dire warnings that if the sport didn’t change it was doomed to mediocrity. We waited and waited for more concrete proposals; they never came. The umpteenth set of administrators to be set the task of putting British athletics to rights have obviously added the unfinished review to those collecting dust on the federation’s shelves.

Only the very best athletes can guarantee themselves a reasonable income from the sport. In Britain it is only a handful of top stars that can make a living. As I write James McIlroy, an up-and-down journeyman runner, ranked third in Britain at 800 metres last year, announces his immediate retirement, citing financial worries. “I wasn’t prepared to lose my house for Beijing,” he said. The sport does not engender enough sponsorship to make it truly professional; it needs to ask itself the reasons why.

Other sports, both domestically and internationally, have realised the need for radical change and moved on. In Britain you would not recognise professional soccer, rugby and cricket from what they were a few decades ago. But you would athletics. Our sport is stagnating and unable to have the vision to combat the professional team sports that are, more and more, dominating the media.

Athletics needs to create more meaningful competitions. It is no coincidence that what really excites people is the major international championships where the crucible of combat is at its most intensive. It is here that tribal nationalism, so prevalent in team sports, takes over. It is completely absent from the World Athletics Tour.

So here’s an idea. Let’s have a European City Cup – Paris v London; Berlin v Barcelona; Rome v Moscow et al., meetings of 3 hours or so in length full of international stars fighting it out for their domiciliary cities. You’d need massive sponsorship and television coverage but it is about time that our sport, the major Olympic sport, started to think big in terms of sponsorship instead of being satisfied with sums that Tiger Woods would consider pin money.

And such a competition could generate national competitions of a similar nature. In Britain (and I suspect elsewhere) the clubs are considered by the grassroots as the be-all and end-all of the sport; they are holy cows whose sanctity is vigorously and at times venomously guarded. But if you are to occasion public interest in competitions below international level then you have to widen that interest into teams that it can associate with. Having inter-city and town competitions would do that and also, with good marketing, could generate sufficient local sponsorship for the competition to be viable.

To continue to survive as a credible international and national sport athletics must begin thinking radically; begin thinking the unthinkable in terms of its present competitive structures. The question is: does it have the vision and the cojones to do so?


dsrunner said...

What an absolute relief to read something with the truth in it.

Those who benefit most from the stagnation of the sport forget there might be another equilibrium that works better for everyone.

The only real question is do we go around or through?


Ian said...

That's great except you missed one point - Jack Buckner delivered the competition review along with recommendations for reform last year. Immediately it got sidetracked by arguments over the suggested change in age groups to match international criteria.

John said...

Inter-city athletics!!! There aren't enough big name athletes to make it work and there are all sorts of complications regarding eligibility: born in, live in, work in, boundary line, parents live there, club there? It's endless and open to massive interpretation and anyway that concept died in the 60's

Country vs Country would work but with 4 a side and concentrating on the event by event points score rather than just individual athletes. And only a selective range of events not necessarily the whole lot, men and women.

The public identify with their country and in the UK there's no shortage of supporters from just about every country on earth.

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