AJU GEORGE CHRIS / Doha Stadium Plus
There was a time, not too long ago, when track-and-field competitions guaranteed a full house.
Athletics events at the Olympics still draw huge crowds, as was evident at the 2012 London Games, but as far as the World Championships are concerned, things have not been that rosy of late.
The International Association of Athletics Federations’ (IAAF) 2013 World Championships, at the 50,000-seater Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, was conspicuous by its sparse crowd. Even the presence of Jamaican sensation Usain Bolt failed to guarantee a full house.
American sprint legend Michael Johnson, who won four Olympic and eight World Championships gold medals, was critical of the sport’s eroding fan base. The 46-year-old, who was in Doha recently, lamented the lack of an evolutionary process.
“Not much has changed in track and field since the time I used to run and that’s the problem. Over the last few decades, the sport has failed to evolve and make itself more attractive to the younger generation. There seems to be a resistance from within to modernise it,” said Johnson.
“Most of the other sports are always looking at ways to make themselves more TV-friendly and engage the audiences better. Athletics’ inability to do so has alienated many fans. Television channels have lost interest and that has led to revenue loss,” he said.
Former British triple jumper Jonathan Edwards, who won gold at the 1995 Gothenburg Worlds, 2000 Sydney Games and ’01 Edmonton Worlds, seemed to agree fully.
“I don’t think athletics has come to terms with the competitive nature of present-day sports markets. If you go back 20 years, it was second only to football. Not anymore. While many other disciplines are better marketed, athletics has largely rested on its past laurels,” the 47-year-old told Doha Stadium Plus.
“These days, it’s not a case of ‘see what the broadcaster wants to show you.’ You’ve the remote control and you pick and choose what you want to see. It’s a business. Track and field hasn’t quite adapted to this change,” said Edwards.
Johnson, who is never reluctant to speak his mind, said the IAAF was in urgent need of some professionals at the top.
“My skills lie in business. Events like the NBA (basketball) and NFL (American football) are organised like businesses and they’re successful. But look at track and field. The IAAF is still run in the model when it was an amateur sport.
“To build a sport, you need to hire people who’re experts in their particular fields. But here, the people who’re making those decisions are those elected to that positions rather than hired,” he said.
Former long-distance and marathon runner Gianni Demadonna, who is now an IAAF-accredited athletes’ manager, felt the sport’s fragmented fan base limited its potential for growth.
“The IAAF may boast a lot of member federations, but love for track and field isn’t universal. It varies from region to region and discipline to discipline. For example, the best long-distance runners are from Africa, best throwers from Eastern Europe and the US, and best sprinters are mostly Jamaican or American. It’s difficult to create a global interest as fans follow some events and not all,” he said.
“It’s becoming increasingly difficult to attract fans. Most of the world’s best race meetings happen in Europe, but unfortunately, the best athletes aren’t from that continent anymore. This has led to a lack of interest among the public,” he said.
Any sport is only as strong as its grass-roots level development initiatives. Without a steady stream of talent coming up through the ranks, it cannot thrive. Unlike in the past, track and field is finding it hard to attract young talent.
One reason, according to former German hammer thrower Joachim Krug, who currently works as Qatar’s national team co-ordinator, is the increasing competition athletics faced from sports perceived as ‘easier to practise’.
“The younger generation isn’t keen to take up athletics as it’s about a lot of hard work and requires utmost dedication. Why would they go for it when they’ve simpler options?
“Take the case of roller-skating. It’s a high-level sport, but at the same time you see many children engaged in it on the streets. It’s perceived as easier to practise when compared to athletics, which requires many special preparations,” he said.
The highly technical nature of the sport is also pointed out as a reason for the decreased fan following.
“As a spectator, you need knowledge of techniques and tactics to follow track and field. This is why the sprint races have the most followers. The races are over in a jiffy and it can be understood even by novices. But longer distance races are enjoyable only for a few who’ve intimate knowledge of it,” said Krug.
Briton Kelly Holmes, the 800 and 1,500M double gold medallist at the ’04 Athens Olympics, seemed to agree.
“Unless you’re a hardcore fan, you simply don’t follow all disciplines during a meet. Fans of 100M may be interested in the 200 as well, but little beyond that. Only a small minority likes all disciplines equally well,” she said during her recent visit to Doha.
Meanwhile, Johnson, who opined that time was ripe to re-assess the sport’s priorities, suggested radical changes to weed out disciplines that were of lesser interest to spectators.
“There’s a reason why you don’t see heptathlon or decathlon at major one-day meets. It simply doesn’t fit into the package. It’s a nightmare for television broadcast.
“Let’s face it, the majority of people are interested only in sprints. Tell me, how many people would want to see a 3,000 or 5,000M race, or women’s discus throw for that matter, at a one-day meet? It’s boring. It’s time to re-assess the sport’s priorities and take out the less favourite disciplines with fans,” he said.
Krug agreed that a restructuring was the need of the hour.
“Some disciplines, like the 10,000M, isn’t universally enjoyed. But shorter races like 800 and 1,500M still have many takers. My suggestion would be to cap the longest distance run at a one-day meet at 3,000M. It isn’t like taking those disciplines away altogether. Athletes can still compete at the national, World Championships and Olympic levels,” he said.
However, Mohammed Sharif, who works with the Qatar Athletics Federation, had a more creative solution in mind.
“Why should the 10,000M races be competed entirely inside the stadium? Instead of watching athletes run 25 rounds, a major portion of it could be contested outside, with runners entering the stadium only for the final two laps,” said Sharif.
“This way, it’ll leave the track open for other events and also add much-needed drama to the longer race. Holding it outside, just like marathons, could improve public participation to an extent,” he said.
There are other innovative ideas already being tried out around the world. One such initiative was the Golden Fly Series, held in four European cities — Cologne, Munich (both Germany), Innsbruck and Salsburg (both Austria) — earlier this year.
A brainchild of former Austrian national coach Armin Margreiter, it takes athletics to the public rather than the other way around. Under the concept, participants in pole vault and long jump compete in special arenas at busy places, thus providing wholesome entertainment to the public.
“It’s one way to attract new fans. If they don’t come to you, go to them. By providing them instant entertainment, you encourage them to learn more about it. If it’s held as a promotional event for a bigger competition at a later date, that’ll help attract audience to the stands as well,” said Krug.
But not everyone seems too keen on tinkering with established disciplines for the sake of grabbing a few eyeballs. Edwards is one of them.
“There’s no point in making changes just for the sake of glamourising the sport. I’m not for playing around with disciplines for the novelty factor because then, it’ll just end up as a passing fad. There won’t be any lasting impact,” he said.
Meanwhile, the IAAF too has been trying to bring the crowds back to the stadium. Most of their efforts are tied to the success of the 14-leg Diamond League (DL) series.
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