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Athletics trying to catch up in the ratings race

Athletics trying to catch up in the ratings race

by: Sebastian Coe (the runner)

Two years ago British athletics was on its knees. The receivers had been called in to carve up a bankrupt sport which only a few weeks earlier had appointed David Moorcroft as its new chief executive. The fruits of the previous 20 years, which had served up Olympic champions and medallists at all levels, dominance in Europe and the Commonwealth, plus lucrative television contracts and sponsorships, had been squandered.

As in all failed businesses, the writing had been on the wall for some years. Under-spending in key areas like coaching and talent identification, and overspending that made Imelda Marcos look positively frugal, were predominantly but not exclusively the cause. Diane Modahl's controversial legal case and subsequent court victory against the old British Amateur Athletic Board was another nail in the coffin.

I remember standing next to Britain's director of coaching, Frank Dick, at Crystal Palace in 1986 at a fireworks display to mark the end of one of the UK's most successful seasons, which included nine individual gold medals at the European Championships in Stuttgart. Commentating on the quality of the display, I turned to Frank who smiled thinly: the cost of the pyrotechnics exceeded his field events' budget for that year.

With a few notable exceptions, like our epic triumph in the 4 x 400 metres over the mighty US at the World Championships in Tokyo in 1991, victory two years later for Linford Christie and Sally Gunnell at the Barcelona Olympics, and the performances of Colin Jackson and Liz McColgan, the last decade was a period of relative decline. As for middle-distance running, Peter Elliott's Commonwealth gold in Auckland in 1990 has been our only title since 1986. Slim pickings for a country that held every major middle-distance title from 1978 to 1986.

Slowly the crowds began to dwindle and with them went major sponsors and television coverage. The nadir was reached when ITV scheduled a 25-minute highlights package of the prestigious Oslo meeting, 24 hours after the event, which coincided with BBC's exclusive coverage of the women's singles final at Wimbledon.

Soon afterwards they left the scene and Channel 4, with much credit and some innovative ideas, stepped in, but there could be no disguising the fact that athletics, consistently our most successful national sport, was heading quickly to minority sport status. Football's pre-eminence only added to the problems.

It was against this backdrop that David Moorcroft, joined by David Hemery, president of the newly-formed UK Athletics, and guided with sensitivity by Sir Christopher Chattaway, went about drawing up a new and workable constitution in conjunction with the neglected athletics clubs.

Crucial amongst these changes was the separation within the sport of the performance and promotions function. In other words, the sport should no longer rely upon those whose job it was to manage and coach teams to fill stadiums in Gateshead or Birmingham. Both tasks require vital but very different attributes and skills. Much has happened in the last two years.

The reappearance of domestic athletics on the BBC - its natural home in the eyes of most fans - and the welcome support and financial stability provided by the insurance company CGU, have gone a long way to speeding up the sport's rehabilitation.

Last year was the first time for many years when stadiums were full and there was a visible excitement about the domestic scene. This was partly due to the recognition by the sports promotions team that the days of the athletics enthusiast who was prepared to sit through a mountain of heats on the Friday night of the AAAs had gone.

During the golden era of the 1980s, athletics had attracted a far broader audience. They wanted the big names, they wanted to be informed about what was going on in the stadium and they wanted to be entertained for no more than 2.5 hours.

If this lesson has now been learnt at home, it is still largely un-addressed on the international scene. Although international athletics has increasing television audiences, the number of spectators attending live meetings, such as the World Championships, is often poor. The World Championships in Seville last year were at least two days too long, and because of this the crowds were left sitting for up to 40 minutes at a time with no event in the stadium. This woeful choreography must have left even the most die-hard enthusiast questioning whether a return visit was worthwhile.

The International Amateur Athletic Federation must recognise that other major sports are a long way ahead of athletics in attracting new and younger audiences.

This should be one of the highest priorities for the federation's new president, Lamine Diack. Diack has inherited a sport at a crossroads. It will need enlightened leadership and innovative thinking to prevent it from falling further behind in the ratings battle.

The drugs problem quite unfairly attaches itself in the public's mind to athletics because the guilty tend to be high-profile and because the sport has led the way at home and abroad in its determination to get rid of the cheats with extensive testing. The problem needs a more co-ordinated approach in future to maintain public confidence.

There is still too much variation in testing procedures and punishment for athletes to have complete confidence in the system. The clutch of positive tests for Nandrolone has recently highlighted this problem and thrust British athletics to the centre of this particular controversy.

It is also essential to emphasise the widespread belief that the answer to enhanced human performance lies not in a bottle or a food supplement but in more time and thought on the training track. The popular support amongst athletes for blood testing would go a long way to identifying the cheats.

This issue too, must now be grasped by the IAAF and the International Olympic Committee, free from the paralysing fear of legal intervention and the bogus arguments about human rights that only serve to protect the guilty.

This page last updated: Saturday 20 March 2010

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