August 8, 2012 7:13 pm

Olympics’ buzz masks poor state of athletics

A packed Olympic stadium, cheering crowds, huge global television audiences night after night – track and field is getting its quadrennial moment in the sun.

Even the shot putters and hammer throwers, traditionally poor relations to the runners and jumpers, are cheered on, whatever their nationality.

But the Olympics, together with the biennial world championships, mask the generally impoverished state of athletics. Set aside its showpiece global events and what is left is a sport struggling for sponsors and broadcasters, participants and a grassroots structure.

The earning power of its elite performers, even Usain Bolt, is small compared with their equivalents in other sports.

Then there is the chronic lack of personality and charisma from its exponents, with the Jamaican the notable exception. “I don’t think we should kid ourselves. Bolt has a higher appeal than the sport itself,” Lord Coe, Locog chairman, said.

One solution would be to rethink track and field along the lines of the short-format concepts that have revived interest in cricket and rugby.

The radicals in the normally staid International Amateur Athletics Federation, track and field’s governing body, talk about experiments such as making the high jump a timed event and varying running distances. Craig Masback, a sports marketing executive for Nike, wants more country-versus-country competitions, along the lines of golf’s Ryder Cup.

Lord Coe, who is bidding to become the IAAF’s next president, believes the London games have shown it is possible to promote the sport to the uninitiated – the graphics, the musical entertainment, the merchandise. He talks of using social media to reach a younger audience, while respecting the heritage and tradition of athletics.

The former Olympic champion also wants the IAAF to be “more hands on” in helping poorer nations promote their star athletes, although the body’s annual revenues of $50m are small compared with the riches of the International Olympic Committee.

If he gets the job, Lord Coe’s agenda will be full. The proliferation of mass-running events such as city marathons under the aegis of private bodies has passed it by and now the IAAF wants an active role. It also wants track and field more ingrained in schools.

While the UK has been praised by Jacques Rogge, IOC president, for placing sport in the school curriculum, the country’s politicians are also having to explain why school sport is still so underfunded.

The multimillion-pound investment into British Olympic athletes is all very well, but “we are trying to grow a tree from the top down”, says former athlete and agent John Bicourt, a contemporary of Lord Coe.

Track and field county championships, for example, have been hit hard, he says. “The depth of standard has now gone,” Mr Bicourt adds.

Lord Coe recalled a time when Brendan Foster, the former distance runner, would be rung up by Newcastle United football club to check when local athletics meetings were scheduled. “If he was putting on a track meet on a Saturday, Newcastle would move their match to a Friday,” to avoid a clash, Lord Coe said. “We all recognise it’s been tougher for athletics in the last few years.”

TOP-EARNING ATHLETES – HOW BOLT COMPARES

LeBron James, Basketball, $53m

Roger Federer, Tennis, $52.7m

Kobe Bryant, Basketball, $52.3m

Maria Sharapova, Tennis, $27.9m

Kevin Durant, Basketball, $25.5m

Carmelo Anthony, Basketball, $22.9m

Novak Djokovic, Tennis, $20.6m

Usain Bolt, Athletics, $20.3m

Li Na, Tennis, $18.4m

Deron Williams, Basketball, $18.2m

Source: Forbes

(Annual earnings including salary and endorsements, calculated June 2012)

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