Tuesday, 23 September 2008

European Woes

In Beijing, Europe’s male runners put in their worst global performance since the dawn of the modern Olympics. A silver medal in the steeplechase by a Frenchman of Algerian origin and a relay bronze by a Russian quartet in the 4 x 400 metres relay was all that the cream of European men had to offer in the face of the American, Jamaican and East African running juggernauts. It is clearly time for those running athletics across Europe (including the promoters) to collectively search their consciences to wonder if they have settled into a complacently comfortable and now damaging rut.

European pride was again saved by its jumpers and throwers and its women athletes, mostly from the Eastern European countries. It is ironic that the man in charge of a British team that obtained an equal number of medals (4) to Italy, Germany, France and Spain combined should have been unceremoniously shown the door on his return. But that’s another story.

It is in Western Europe where the malaise really lies. Of the 24 medals available in the men’s jumps and throws Europe won 18. But of those 18 medals Western Europe won only 4 (two by Britain, one each by Portugal and Norway). Western Europe contributed just 5 (21%) to the continent’s overall male collection of Olympic medals of 24. Europe’s women incidentally won 30 medals overall, the West’s contribution here totalled 8 (26.6%).

The worrying aspect, as former European Athletics Council member John Lister noted back in 2005, is that the five most important economic nations are the above mentioned Britain, Germany, Spain, Italy and France. Between them they provide the foundation for 80 per cent of the contract with the European Broadcasting Union, which feeds the sport its biggest income. “For television interest to be maintained,” John said then, “successful European athletes are essential…without them stability is at risk”.

As the above figures show it isn’t happening. Prior to the World Championships in Helsinki Europe’s medal haul had averaged for a number of years around the 50% mark. In Helsinki it reduced to 46%. In Beijing it dropped even more dramatically to 38%. Those five most important economic nations are struggling: in 1999 in Seville they won 21% of the medals, by Helsinki they had dropped to 12%, in Beijing they sank to 5.6%.

Former European Council member Luciano Barra produced figures in the IAAF New Studies in Athletics 2007 that showed an alarming decline in television viewing figures for the Big Five for the major championships staged in Europe this century. In 2002 they totalled 245.5 million; by 2006 they had dropped to 197.5 million, a decline of 43.5 million (18%). Worst hit was the BBC, showing a decline of 51.2%.

Conventional wisdoms as to the reasons for the athletic decline and fall of Europe abound. We are now a sedentary continent; more and more countries are winning medals; there’s no way our sprinters can beat the Jamaicans and Americans and the endurance running Africans are also unbeatable and so on. All reasons, you’ll notice, outside the control of those running athletics in Europe and the various countries of the continent. Everyone, it seems, is in denial about our deficiencies.

A sedentary continent? I think not. Sport across the whole of Europe is still a major leisure activity. Mass marathons and lesser known road races attract hundred of thousands of runners across the continent.

More countries winning medals? The numbers of countries winning medals rose quite suddenly from 36 at the World Championships in Stuttgart in 1993 to 43 at the next world championships in Göteburg in 2005. Since then it has plateaued between 40 and 46 countries. The reason for the sudden upsurge in medal-winning countries was nothing to do with the development of athletics and everything to do with the disintegration of the Soviet Union, which produced 15 new states. Indeed it could be said that with the reunification of Germany and new states also emerging in the Balkans the percentage of countries winning medals has in fact fallen since 1993

It is true that European men’s standards have declined in both sprints and distance running events. The first European to run under 10 seconds was Linford Christie (9.97) twenty years ago; only two European men, Francis Obikwelu and Ronald Pognon have achieved that feat this century. It is 27 years since Seb Coe broke 1:42 for 800 metres; only two Europeans, Yuriy Borzakovskiy and Andre Bucher, have broken 1:43this century. It is 26 years since David Moorcroft set his European 5000m record (13:00.41). Only three Europeans have broken 13 minutes since that time, the last 8 years ago. Two of them were born in Morocco.

So what is the underlying reason behind Europe’s dismal track showing in Olympic and World Championship stadia? Is it that athletes are not as talented as their forebears? There is no reason to suppose that the flow of track talent across a whole continent, as opposed to field, is drying up. Is it that standards of coaching have dropped dramatically? The same applies. To me the problem lies squarely with the competitive network established across Europe by the IAAF and the European AA which is not serving the continent’s athletes well. The 50 or so IAAF and EAA meetings staged this year and in previous years are an uncoordinated mish-mash that often has more commercial interests than athletic ones. Our best track athletes are not obtaining the frequent and right level of competition that they require.

I and others said all this early in 2005 at an IAAF Competition Workshop held in Monaco. I had been invited by the late István Gyulai to make a presentation because I had written that I had chosen to watch the final day of golf’s Ryder Cup rather than the IAAF World Athletics final and that when I had watched the latter the next day I knew I had made the right choice. The one was exciting and competitive, the other turgid and boring. Dave Gordon of the BBC gave a similar message. Heads nodded sagely but it has been ignored as a survey of this year’s Golden League meetings shows.

Only 29% of male track athletes at this year’s six Golden League meetings came from Europe, which staged them. Of the 44 men’s track events across the six meetings European athletes won only 3. Only 6 other athletes figured in the first three. The litany goes on. Running against opposition that is in a higher, different class is not good for the soul. Many of those competing must have been demoralised by their experience and knew that it did not augur well for their chances in Beijing’s Birds Nest Stadium. Many, I am sure, were mentally defeated before they even arrived in the Chinese capital. What we have here is a crisis of confidence for both athletes and administrators.

It may be said that the purpose of this collection of Golden League, Super Grand Prix, Grand Prix and European Permit meetings (whose pecking order the public does not understand let alone care about) is not to develop athletics or athletes but to provide a shop window for the sport and its sponsors (and provide paydays for the competitors). In Britain anyway it has failed in this also for the big European meetings, once regulars of terrestrial television, now languish on pay-to-view.

The European AA cannot change individual coaching or what happens in individual countries but it can make radical changes to competition across the continent. It should look across the Atlantic and study the competition structures, fiercely competitive in nature, which breeds and hardens its athletes and turns them into international champions year after year. Is there something we can learn? Surely it is not beyond the wit of man to create similar competitions that frequently pitch Europe’s best against each other? .

The EAA is aware of the bleak state of the sport but seems rather intent to turning athletics and in particular the European Cup into a version of Jeux Sans Frontiers (It’s a Knock Out) as well as staging a European Championships every two years, which dubiously means just months prior to the London Olympics in 2012. At IAAF level there seems to be an awful complacency, based not on athletes and athletics but on commercial viability. As long as the sponsors and television are there and the money is rolling in, everything must be rosy. But if Europe dies, athletics dies.

The world’s best athletes took their weary limbs to Stuttgart for a lucrative World Athletics final. The standards were far from great. It was more like a beauty contest. There was no redemption for Europe’s runners. The best they could muster were second places in the 200 metres and 110 metres Hurdles respectively. No big paydays this year then.

It was the last athletics to be staged at the newly named Mercedes-Benz Arena which is now to be re-developed into a football-only stadium. For those who believe in omens it could be appropriate.

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