Will athletics still be the major Olympic sport by 2020? It’s a good question but unless, as one time member of the European Athletics Association (EAA), Luciano Barra wrote in 2007, we face major challenges with the political will to effectively overcome them, then the answer is almost certainly, no.
Other sports are fast modernising, making themselves commercially viable by attracting investment, ensuring their product is worthy of television coverage and looking to their future by making sure young people find it attractive enough to want to participate. Fatally athletics is doing none of these things.
You don’t have to scratch far below the surface glitz and glamour of the IAAF events to discover a sport in penury, reliant entirely on meagre government handouts and the goodwill and financial generosity of volunteer officials and coaches. Like much else in athletics this is a throwback to a different age but we seem loathe to depart from it. Even at international level anyone visiting any of the 2009 Golden League meetings for the first time in 25 years would not find that much has changed apart from an over preponderance of East African runners in the distance events.
The IAAF and its regional and national federations have failed for years to translate the pulsating excitement of Olympic, World and European championships into its other promotions. They appear as parodies of the real thing. In 2002 the Commonwealth Games came to Manchester; it was a week of exhilaration and success unparalleled in British athletics. In the polls, for the blink of an eyelid, athletics moved ahead of football in popularity. But nothing subsequently changed. British Athletics and its commercial arm were incapable of cashing in on the enthusiasm generated. The stadium switched to football and it seemed symbolic that athletics was demoted to the warm up track.
Two years before Barra wrote his comment the IAAF was told all this, quite forcefully, at a workshop in Monaco. Television representatives pointed out their declining interest in a sport that seemed unwilling to change. Heads were sagely nodded but this year has seen a further drop in viewing figures for a major championship.
At the beginning of this century television audiences in Britain for international athletics ranged between 5 and 7 million but as the decade has progressed that average has dropped, according to the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) to between 2½ and 3 million for Berlin. There is a similar pattern in other major western countries. It’s caused by the failure of international and national athletics bodies to keep the sport alive in the public eye for long periods of time; it’s caused by a failure to think radically.
Although the projected Diamond League has some innovations that will bring encouragement to more events when you look at the meetings involved there is a distinct sense of déjà vu. Ten of the currently projected fourteen meetings are in Europe, meetings that were criticised at the 2005 workshop for their repetitious nature.
A major event in this year’s Golden League was the 5000 metres. Of a total of 91 entries 76 came from East Africa, many taking part in more than one meeting. Only six Europeans were invited for the whole series. Can the promoters not correlate these figures with a lack of media and therefore public interest?
The top stars are sucked clean away by the IAAF and the European promoters into the World Athletics Tour to be rarely seen in their own countries. Blanka Vlasic competed only twice in Croatia; Phillips Idowu three times in Britain; Andreas Thorkilsden three times in Norway and Derval O’Rourke not at all in Ireland. And without television coverage how can a sport sustain interest if its stars are so rarely seen domestically?
There is a domino effect. In Britain the top athletes rarely compete below national championship level, the regional championships and major leagues are bereft of such stars. In terms of sponsorship and public interest the organisers have nothing to sell.
Ernest Hemingway, in his great panegyric to bullfighting and toreros, Death in the Afternoon, wrote: “...that is one test of a true amateur sport, whether it is more enjoyable to player than to spectator (as soon as it becomes enjoyable enough to the spectator for the charging of admission to be profitable the sport contains the germ of professionalism).”
Old Papa was right. The problem we have is that immediately below international level track and field is more enjoyable to players (athletes, coaches, officials and families) than to spectators (the general public). Below that level the general public are rarely seen, indeed are rarely welcome. I can only write of Britain but under the national championships (and sometimes even there) if you asked coaches, administrators, parents and friends to leave the stadium, the stands would be empty. Admission is rarely charged, publicity is conspicuous by its absence and the atmosphere is generally unwelcoming. At such levels athletics is totally uncommercial. It’s become extremely self indulgent.
You may well say that it’s the same with most major sports, that there is no correlation between Sunday morning park soccer and the English Premier League. The difference though, is clear. In soccer there are many layers, many of them professional and semi-professional between your Regents Park Sunday kickabouters and Arsenal; in athletics there is an almost instant brutal dichotomy from the professional 0.1% (rich) to the amateur 99.9% (poor) once form, for one reason or another, deserts you. As an athlete one moment you are feted, the next you are yesterday’s man or woman.
Competition is the raison d’être of all sport, it’s certainly the life blood of athletics. So why is it that it’s so piecemeal? Why is it that nationally and internationally there is no holistic approach? In Britain we have had numerous reports on the future of competition but no metaphorical puff of white smoke has ever emanated from Athletics House; the current hotchpotch of mediocrity serves only to turn people away from athletics, especially the general public.
There’s an old proverb that says there’s none so blind as those who will not hear. As the sport collectively turns a deaf ear to the expert advice that it is given, as it sees Usain Bolt as its sole saviour and as it ignores shrinking participation at its grass roots you know deep down that we are in trouble.