Friday, 11 September 2009
That's All Folks!
As with Bugs Bunny so it is with the ever shortening athletics season. For the general public Athletics 2009 has been about nine, pulsating days in Berlin and Usain Bolt; for aficionados it’s been around nine weeks. But now it’s all over and it’s time to lower the curtains. It is not finis, of course, if you live in the southern hemisphere, where the season is just starting. Not so you’d notice in the northern half of the globe because news from the south is minimal.
When the IAAF launched its new Diamond League in March its President, Lamine Diack said: “It has always been one of our dreams to see the circuit of our best meetings going to each corner of the world. And today, we are all sitting here and are proud to say that the dream has come true.” Well, not quite.
Of the fifteen selected meetings eleven are in Europe, two are in the USA and one each in Asia and the Arabian Peninsula. By not travelling south of the equator great cities like Sydney (2000 Olympics); Melbourne (2006 Commonwealth); Rio de Janeiro (bidding for 2016 Olympics); Auckland (1990 Commonwealth Games); Johannesburg (1998 World Athletics Cup); Cape Town (2010 FIFA World Cup); Jakarta (2011 South-East Asia Games) will not see the world’s very best athletes in action.
How can this be? How is it that other sports like rugby, cricket, golf, tennis, soccer, play at a high level for nine or more months of the year, taking their competitions to southern climes when it is out-of-season in the north (or vice-versa) whilst athletics, apart from some cross-country and indoor, goes into training hibernation after more like nine weeks?
It’s partly habit, of course, the old “well, we’ve always done it this way” beloved of so many in athletics including, regrettably, many coaches. Little research has been carried out on the comparative physiological requirements of different sports but I find it difficult to believe that they are so much greater in track and field than they are in, say, tennis, where the best players, for nine months or so, can play upwards of fifteen hours competitive tennis in a week between flying to venues around the globe. And still train.
Anyway, many athletes run week-in, week-out arduous cross-country races and sprinters and jumpers compete in indoor meetings; athletes of undoubted talent from Australia and New Zealand in particular have always travelled northwards in search of fame and fortune after their summer seasons.
John Landy did it in the fifties as did Herb Elliott, Ron Clarke and Murray Halberg in the following decade. The late Andy Norman persuaded the New Zealanders John Walker, Rod Dixon and Dick Quax to come to Europe every year for the summer season with no detrimental effect on their performances. Most of the above set world records in the northern hemisphere. More recently Craig Mottram ran the Europe circuit for a number of seasons. So it appears that talented southern hemisphere athletes can endure up to eight months of combined competing and training without harmful effects on performance. It surely follows that European and American athletes can do likewise.
To truly reach, with the Diamond League, “each corner of the globe” as Diack put it, the IAAF has to do one of two things. It either has to extend the programme by another six meetings or so or it has to cut down on the number of European meetings on the circuit. Given the close ties between the European promoters and the world governing body this might prove difficult. Some of the proposed meetings have a long history with the Weltklasse at the Leitzegrund track in Zurich, for instance, going back over 80 years.
But if we are to embrace what the IAAF calls “the athletics family” south of the equator, if we are to help develop the sport in that vast area, then tough decision will have to be taken.
The IAAF is to be congratulated on its concept which is certainly more equitable in terms of the distribution of events and of prize money but its success will be governed by the television coverage that it can attract. The whole series needs to be aired ideally on terrestrial television but at least on mainstream satellite and certainly not tucked away on obscure pay-to-view channels in various countries. Without television world-wide the Diamond League will be just another self-indulgent exercise by a sport that needs to frequently convince itself that it is more important than it really is.
A Pretence of Democracy
Steve Backley, one of the world’s all-time great javelin throwers, is the interim vice-president of the UK Members Council a body that meets twice annually to sustain the pretence that democracy reigns in our sport in Britain.
He now has to go through an election process to confirm his original appointment. Knowing Steve as I do then, should there be such an election process (doubtful as you will see), it is more than likely that he would get my vote being perfectly capable of expressing robust views where necessary.
It is the process of this election that should give grave concern to the vast majority of the sport. It is a similar procedure as is operated by England Athletics where recently, some may remember, a challenger to the incumbent chairman was rejected by an Establishment vetting panel appointed to assess candidature suitability.
A similar all-white, all-male athletics establishment junta has been set up to decide whether suggested candidates can become nominations to challenge Steve. Whilst not suggesting that the vetting panel has anything but fairness and the good of the sport at heart it is surely right to point out that the process is open to abuse and manipulation. It is also a process (no doubt instigated by our unelected sporting quangos)that looks so daunting that very few would seemingly wish to undertake it which is probably the whole purpose of the exercise.
What is extraordinary is the submissiveness of the rank and field of British athletics to the processes that have over the past twelve years eroded its ability to influence the development of the sport. Typical of the docility has been the total lack of protest and even comment on the administrative changes made by England leading to the abolition of the nine regional offices and as a consequence the demotion of the nine regional councils to talking shops. The auguries for the replacements are not propitious but all this has been greeted by a deafening silence.
“To stand in silence,” said Abraham Lincoln, “when they should be protesting makes cowards out of men.”