Watching (on television, in the dry) Usain Bolt splash his way to an astounding 150 metres world best time of 14.35 secs in a rain-soaked Manchester a few weeks ago was, for everyone, some experience. It certainly was for his fellow competitors who looked completely awe-struck at the finish. Marlon Devonish, who finished a distant second in the race, said in the understatement of the season so far: “I think Usain is in a different league right now.”
But this Blog isn’t about Bolt it’s about innovation and the good news is that some of the hierarchy of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) were present to witness the event. They must know in their hearts that track and field worldwide is in deep trouble as far as popularity goes and that radical approaches are needed if our sport is to undergo a renaissance.
Bringing certain events out on to the streets is one way of re-galvanising public interest. It’s not new; there have been town square pole vault competitions around Europe for many years and in a recent interview Seb Coe enthused about a shot put competition held in a Stockholm market square, that attracted 5000 enthusiastic spectators the night before the DN Galan track meeting. And there must be some way to integrate the street athletics series for youngsters promoted and organised by Linford Christie and Darren Campbell into any future similar programmes.
Innovation must be in the air for we also have the inaugural Super 8 inter-city meeting in Cardiff on June 10. This is an idea with enormous potential for every section of the sport. What club athletics in Britain has failed to grasp for years is the fact that six hour long meetings combined with up to six hours of travelling is not the way to attract young people to (or to keep older people in) our sport. Super 8 lasts for just two hours, covers eleven events for both men and women and has eight cities battling it out. Attractively presented and properly promoted, especially locally, this could be an awakening for track and field on a local level. Providing the people of Cardiff (where the prototype is being held) know about it, it will surely be a great success.
Next year, if the prototype is successful (as it surely must be with international athletes taking part and with Sky television giving it coverage) the competition will go nationwide with cities being invited to bid for franchises and this is where some uncertainty creeps in and a number of questions need to be answered. The most pertinent concerns finance because without sufficient backing the idea will struggle. But this is not the time to ask too many pertinent questions but to wish the concept well and await reaction.
There is, however, a difference between innovation and turning the sport into a circus and there are many who are concerned that the new European Athletics Team Championship is about to do just that. The European Athletics Association (EAA) has long been under the misguided assumption that the declining popularity of the European Cup competition was down to its structure and over ten years ago began reducing the number of attempts allowed in field events in the erroneous belief that such a gesture would be welcomed by television. But television never ever showed a complete set of jumps and throws anyway so it was a futile gesture. The decline in the popularity of the European Cup was that it offered no financial incentives to those taking part and so many of the continent’s top stars stayed away. The complications of the new competition are too numerous to include here and at the risk of being tagged a purist I forecast that the competition, like Jeux Sans Frontiéres (Its a Knock Out), just might entertain an unknowledgeable audience but will not impress a knowledgeable one.