Monday, 23 March 2009

More of the Same?

Two initiatives, one international and the other national, have been put forward presumably to try and reverse athletics’ fortunes both in terms of public enthusiasm for and participation in our sport, both of which are seriously on the wane across the globe.
The first comes from the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) and the other from United Kingdom Athletics (UKA). In 2010 the IAAF is totally revamping the top tiers of its World Athletics Tour with the introduction of a Diamond League; UKA are hoping to introduce inter-city matches of short duration that will put the sport back on the map. The key element in both cases is whether the aim is to rekindle public interest rather than athletics being its usual self-indulgent self.
One of the factors in the decline in popularity of the major Olympic sport has been the stark contrast between the glamorous top competitions and the remaining levels of the sport. In favoured countries there is just one major international event that attracts the public; the rest of the fare is usually very lengthy and turgid. In Britain we are very fortunate in having two meetings lined up for the Diamond League that will be televised by the BBC but below that the level of competition gets progressively worse; the public doesn’t just not turn up to meetings, it doesn’t even know about them. My impression is that it’s the same across the globe with the possible exceptions of the USA and Jamaica with their intensive scholastic and university competitions.
What the IAAF doesn’t seem to recognise in its enthusiasm for its new competition is that by having central contracts with top international athletes it is hoovering up more stars who will not appear in their own countries. That was partly acceptable when the major grand prix meetings appeared on terrestrial television as they did in the golden era of the sport but it is quite another matter when the vast majority of meetings only appear in the outer reaches of satellite, pay-to-view television. That is why the role of IMG in selling the global television rights is so vital to the success of the Diamond League.
Part of the problem in recent years has been the repetitive nature of many events, American sprinters beating American sprinters and African runners beating African runners, all usually wearing the same new Nike vest. It was forcibly raised by TV representatives at a workshop on the One-Day meetings in Monaco four years ago but the penny seems to be taking an inordinately long time to drop. Even the magic of Usain Bolt would begin to pale for TV audiences if all his races became foregone conclusions.
On the plus side it is good news that all events will be catered for across the whole series with field event athletes and throwers in particular receiving an equal share of the $420,000 prize money available at each meeting and being able to win, along with their track peers, the top prize of a 4 carat diamond (worth $80,000) for gaining most points across the twelve or fifteen meetings series.
We really need to know a lot more detail about the proposed British inter-city competition, with a pilot this year and a launch in 2010, before due comment can be made but really the same criteria for the success of the Diamond League applies. Will the competition be sponsored thus giving it financial clout and publicity? Will it attract our top stars? And if it does will it attract television? Without the oxygen of publicity it will just be another valiant effort almost literally played out behind closed doors, like the current inter-city indoor matches and regional championships and league athletics. In my stint as Media spokesman for the sport I continually heard people bemoaning the fact that the public did not support their endeavours. I had a stock question in reply: Who knows? Almost invariably it transpired that no one did.
Globally and domestically there is not enough athletics competition going on. In the northern hemisphere summer the general public is aware of athletics from about mid-June to mid-August, too short a time span to create enthusiasm or even passing interest. Until that situation is addressed we will not move forward in any significant manner.
After the Ball
The Diamond League is good news for Britain which will be staging two of the meetings. It has also surely helped to finally settle the post-2012 debate on the downsized Olympic stadium, which will now become the national athletics stadium with a 25,000 seat capacity. Without it our capital city would have been almost alone in Europe in not having an athletics stadium worthy of the name.
The crowds that sweep to the now obsolete Crystal Palace will ensure that big meetings in East London are well supported but UK Athletics and England Athletics must guarantee that top meetings regularly go there throughout the track season.
The sport has done little, with an ongoing silence, to counter the speculation about the stadium’s future. Precious little has been heard from either UKA or England about their competition plans for post-2012. Luckily English soccer’s aversion to having a track around a pitch has killed off most of the conjecture but definite plans should be outlined as soon as possible
The UK and England Championships should be permanent annual fixtures; there should be other international events (perhaps a revival of the hugely popular floodlit meetings) and certainly opportunity must be made for young athletes to have their moments on the Olympic track. If accommodation requirements can be met surely it would be an ideal permanent venue for the English Schools?
Huge crowds of 40 to 50 thousand used to pack the old White City stadium half a century or so ago when, of course, other attractions were in short supply. Those days are well gone. But the new stadium can be the catalyst for revival. It is interesting to note that all the major sports have their headquarters and their major stadia in the capital, at Wembley, Wimbledon, Lords and Twickenham and British athletics must seriously consider moving its headquarters to what will always be known as the Olympic stadium. It would be a sign, worryingly missing to date, of serious intent by the sport.

A few words to the Wise

How wise of the IAAF Council to step back from the brink, accept legal advice and not attempt to ban Dwain Chambers for bringing the sport into disrepute through certain passages in his drugs memoir,masquerading as an autobiography. To have done so would have opened up a Pandora’s Box of legalities and prolonged the media agony of a sport in the grip of its own zealotry.
The Council could be wiser still if it now decided put its collective emotions aside, put its house in order as far as drug taking and punishment is concerned and ensure that there is consistency across the sport by setting rules that everyone - athletes, federations and promoters - must adhere to. Allowing the application of so called individual consciences creates loopholes and makes for bad law.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Racing Demons

At the Seoul Olympics in 1988 the sprinter Ben Johnson, who had won gold in the 100 metres, tested positive for an anabolic steroid, was immediately stripped of his medal, his world record and unceremoniously bundled back to Canada midst a global media frenzy.
He became demonized. Humankind always seems to need an embodiment of what it loves or hates and as far as athletics and indeed sport was concerned Johnson perfectly fitted the bill for “cheating”. He was banned, vilified and hauled before the Dubin Enquiry in Canada and the nation expected public recantation and remorse. Other Canadian athletes were caught up in the Dubin net and confessed to drug taking. It was a dark time for Canadian athletics. But Johnson would not do what everyone wanted and creep away into the night. He attempted a comeback; it was unsuccessful. Sport was mightily relieved when he finally retired; it could pretend that the nightmare had never happened.
Fast forward two decades and we now have demonized Dwain, the new European indoor champion and record holder, the third fastest man over 60 metres in the history of the sport. The extraordinary thing about his case is that after testing positive Chambers was ‘sentenced’ to a 2 year ban for THG, served his time, tried out other sports and then decided to return to athletics for a second time in 2008, two and a quarter years after he was eligible to do so.
I say for a second time because what seems to have been forgotten midst the holier-than-thou chest beating and wailing is that he actually returned from his ban in 2006, ran second in the European Cup and, more significantly, competed in the Gateshead Grand Prix in June. So what had changed by February 2008 to make his second coming such a global cause celebre and to have him banned by European promoters and constantly vilified?
It was his association with the sensational revelations surrounding the Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative (BALCO), the jailing of Marion Jones for perjury, the insidious winks and hints from BALCO owner Victor Conte, the disclosures about world record holders Tim Montgomery and Justin Gatlin and baseball legend Barry Bonds. For the second time in two decades athletics had been dragged through the mud. In the eyes of many Chambers is a living personification of all that. And because he too will not creep away into the night the demonization continues apace, fuelled by avaricious tabloids.
This coming June the Gateshead Grand Prix will be held again but, as things stand, Chambers will not be there. He is the same athlete with the same sins that competed in 2006; it’s the same promoter and the same federation. The IAAF tells me: “There is no "ban" by Euro meetings - there is a recommendation NOT to invite doped athletes. They can’t ban anyone - only the IAAF can do that.” So why is UK Athletics welcoming back Dwain Chambers on the one hand (and revelling in his success) but banning him from its two lucrative televised meetings on the other? Who’s in charge, UKA or its promotions arm, Fasttrack?

I have asked UKA these questions but they have disdained to reply. We now have organizations that are no more than cabals under our sports quangos, cabals who believe that their actions are not the business of the sport as a whole.

The question as to who is the final arbiter as far as our grand prix meetings are concerned becomes even more pertinent with the news that Gerard Janetzky, the promoter of the opening Golden League meeting of 2009, the DKB-ISTAF meeting in Berlin, has decided that enough is enough and invited Chambers to compete at his meeting, on 14 June.

“I’m surprised Chambers is viewed as the root of all evil,” Janetzky said, putting it in a nutshell. “There have been plenty of athletes who were allowed to start after sitting out their ban, so why should Chamber’s punishment be worse?”

But Chambers seems determined on keeping himself a pariah. Firstly his book about his time as a doped up sprinter hit the stands around the same time as he was winning a gold medal for Britain. Secondly it has transpired that he is keeping in contact with Conte and taking his advice. Who is advising this man? Is anyone advising him? My argument is not about Chambers but about justice and underhand attempts to circumvent the law.

Chambers is a lost soul in the wilderness and if British Athletics is to continue to revel in his success it must do more to help him. It could begin by scourging the hypocrisy in its midst, and let him compete in its televised meetings.

The IAAF bemoans the fact that it did not have a rule, when Chambers returned to the sport, that specified that all his ill gotten gains from athletics (put at $200,000) when he was on drugs, must be paid back before he could compete again. With the Euromeets ban this would effectively mean a lifetime ban. The world governing body needs to make its mind up. If it wants a lifetime ban for drug taking then it should institute one and test it in the courts.

John Rodda

I was deeply saddened to read of the death of John Rodda, who wrote on athletics for the Guardian between 1960 and 1992. John was the doyen and most respected of athletics writers. His contacts with the sport were at the very highest level as those of us, on the other side of the fence as it were, all too frequently discovered.
I had known John for many years but we came into closer and more frequent contact during my decade- long tenure as Media spokesman for the sport. Those were the halcyon days of the 80s and early 90s when British athletes ruled Europe and in some events the world. John was an exceptional writer; his work was incisive and imbued with tremendous knowledge. His finest journalistic moment came in 1968 and had nothing to do with athletics. He was in Mexico City for the Olympics when hundreds of student demonstrators were gunned down just before the Games opened. John was the only Guardian correspondent in Mexico and his dispatches from the capital showed that he would have been a top journalist no matter what the field.
He wrote a history of the Olympics with the IOC President, Lord Killanin; he served on the IAAF Press Commission for many years; he covered ten Olympic Games for his paper; he helped Seb Coe make a report to the IOC; he assisted Andy Norman make a presentation to an IAAF Congress that changed the face of international athletics; he knew Olympic politics inside out. John was not only a reporter on athletics but a lover of the sport as well.
His other sporting love was boxing, which he also covered for his paper, writing on some of the great title fights of the second half of the 20th century.
My best memory of John is of the European Championships in Helsinki in 1994. I was walking through the grounds of the Athlete’s Village when my mobile rang. A familiar voice greeted me and then said: “Can you confirm that a British athlete has tested positive?” I couldn’t so I said that I would get back to him. I turned heel and went back to the restaurant where team manager Verona Elder and team doctor Malcolm Brown were in very close conference. They stopped talking. “I know,” I said, “what you’ve been talking about.” It was the celebrated case of Solomon Wariso and a supplement called Up Your Gas and John had obtained yet another scoop.
John’s retirement lunch was held at the celebrated Ivy Restaurant in London. One of the gifts presented to him was a photograph of him sitting next to the then IAAF President, Primo Nebiolo, who was obviously desperately trying to talk himself out of a probing question. The expression, peering over his reading glasses, on John’s face was wonderfully sceptical. He loved athletes but was rightly suspicious of most administrators.
When you think of John it is of a remembrance of times past, of an era when athletics was always in the news. Those days are gone but we will long remember him as, in the very best sense, a fine gentleman.