Drugs scandals, poor marketing and competition from other sports have all taken their toll on international athletics. The result has been a decline in support, spectator interest and media coverage.
A graphic example of this was the large number of empty seats in Osaka’s Nagai Stadium for the recent World Athletics Champ-ionships in Japan. This was despite the presence of such magnificent athletes as pole-vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva and sprinters Asafa Powell, Tyson Gay and Allyson Felix.
These biennial world champ-ionships are one of two significant showcases for athletics outside the Olympic Games. The other is the yearly circuit – the Golden League and Grands Prix – which culminates this weekend in the World Athletics Final in Stuttgart, Germany. Both of these are organised by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the world governing body.
The general decline has prompted people involved in athletics to call for change in order to revive the sport – and the way it is presented to the public is high on their agenda.
The vast majority of fans watch athletics on television, getting either a whizz-bang edited version or, if it is a live broadcast, the gaps between events are filled with “expert” commentary from former athletes, some of whom are very good, and some of whom are, well, less good. But for the fan in the stadium, the presentation can vary wildly.
The final Golden League fixtures on the circuit, in Brussels and Berlin, eight and six days ago respectively, were staged by knowledgeable organisers, had enthusiastic presenters and were hugely entertaining and successful. That said, these were one-day events.
The World Athletics Champ-ionships, which last nine days, is somewhat different. Here is a salutary tale.
An acquaintance who has worked in the sports shoe industry came to Osaka for the opening weekend from his temporary base in Tokyo. After his first night in Nagai Stadium, he reported something I have heard from scores of athletics neophytes over the years: bewilderment. Several minutes of enticing mayhem in the 800m heats, for example, followed by a 15-minute hiatus, with a desultory jump or throw, taken on the far side of the track.
Those in the media seats have the considerable advantage of television replays and information screens, with everything from lap times to athlete biographies, while the public’s main informational aid is a pre-printed programme. Stadium commentary, in Japanese and the two official IAAF languages, English and French, can only add so much. As can replays on diamond screens, and the all too momentary results on an electronic scoreboard.
The multi-disciplinary nature of athletics – sprints, distance races, hurdles, jumps, throws, walks, heptathlon and decathlon – is often its biggest drawback. For those more acquainted with games such as football or baseball, where the action centres simply around a ball, athletics is often a case of, first: where to look, and second: what actually happened? As a consequence, the huge gaps in the crowd most evenings in Osaka become more understandable.
It is those gaps, in comprehension and support, that Ed Warner, the new chairman of UK Athletics, wants to address.
“I was in Osaka for two-thirds of the time, then watching on TV at home,” Warner says. “Firstly, you see that they didn’t fill the stadium, and that you tells something. Maybe it was the ticket pricing, and in the morning sessions with heats, you only expect a smattering of people. But when every evening session is not packed, you have you ask if you got the product right.”
He adds: “There was too much downtime. Nine days is maybe spreading the jam too thinly on the bread. The IAAF have said they’re looking at the format, but they’re unlikely to change anything until 2011 at the earliest. I say: ‘Why does that need to be in two championships’ time?’ Maybe we need something more compressed, starting with heats, then to splurge on a series of great competive finals across two or three evenings. That would be compelling.”
Jon Ridgeon, a former world championship 110m hurdles silver medallist, is now managing director of the Fast Track agency, which promotes and services UK athletics meetings. The agency’s slick organisation and present-ation is often praised by foreign managers and fans. Fast Track was engaged by the organisers of the 2001 world championships in Edmonton, Canada, but that appears to have been a one-off. Local organising committees, such as in Osaka, have their own ideas.
Ridgeon says: “On the back of that [Edmonton], we wrote a paper for the IAAF, on general principles for event presentation, with infield presenter, more information, use of screens etc. You have to entertain and inform.
“Now, what’s been done with that [paper], I have no idea. So often in major championships, event presentation is a cheap afterthought. But that’s where athletics really works, not in the one-day meets. If you’re going to capture new audiences, it’s got to be at international championships.”
Warner has also suggested holding events in city centres, “like a 100m in the Mall [in London] – obviously not the world championship, but we’ve got to take athletics to the audiences we’ve lost”.
Initiatives such as this have been tried before. There was an infamous one-off race between Olympic sprint champions in 1996, when Michael Johnson pulled up lame after just a few metres of a 150m face-off with Donovan Bailey. On the other hand, indoor high-jump and pole-vault events, set to disco music, have been popular in eastern Europe, but now seem to be on the wane.
When Dave Bedford, race director of the London Marathon, was involved with track meetings, promoted by the International Athletes’ Club in the 1980s, he introduced “Devil Take The Hindmost” events, where the athlete who is last on each lap has to drop out. That, too, has disappeared. But clearly, something broader needs to be done to attract a younger audience.
Nick Davies, head of communications for the IAAF, admits the need for change. “Osaka did improve as the week went on, but Ed Warner had already left by then, and Ed wasn’t around for our [world] championships in Paris  and Helsinki , where presentation was much better. There were no complaints then,” he says.
“But we do need to look at the timetable, things were too slow in Osaka. But Berlin [2009 world championships] has already been awarded, and they’re selling tickets, we can’t suddenly tell them to cut the programme. And it’s the same organisers as the Golden League in Berlin, which was a tremendous atmosphere last weekend, with 70,000 people in the stadium.
“We’re an organisation of 200 countries, catering for a world championships with 2,000 athletes. It takes time. Maybe we do need qualification days, then concentrate the semis and the finals into a four-five day programme.
“There is a feeling change is needed. This is a great opportunity for a last-term president [Lamine Diack retires in 2011] to institute change.”