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.

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