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The 10th World Athletics Championships, which begin today, return to their inaugural venue of Helsinki, but with vastly different expectations from 22 years ago. In 1983, athletics was probably close to its apogee as an attractive, well-marketed, televisually appealing sport, with admired heroes from across the world in a spectrum of events. Today, many of the people who followed the sport for two glittering decades may be ignorant as to when and where this latest event is taking place.
Despite the political boycotts of the Olympics of 1976 and 1980 by many countries, with another to follow in 1984 – one reason indeed for the creation of the world championships – the sport had crossed the divide between “shamateurism” (under-the-counter payments) and professionalism. Stars such as Sebastian Coe, Steve Ovett, Saïd Aouita, Carl Lewis, Edwin Moses, Marita Koch, Sergey Bubka and Heike Drechsler ensured that all leading athletics events received extensive attention from the media.
This year, without offering a list of the numerous leading athletes who will not be appearing in Helsinki for a variety of reasons, that of Hicham El Guerrouj may serve as an exemplar. The Moroccan is taking a rest after his stunning victories in the 1500m and the 5000m at the Athens Olympic Games last summer. But that would have been unthinkable two decades ago. El Guerrouj, it seems, could not muster the time and energy to train for these world championships.
Disenchantment with the sport began with Ben Johnson’s expulsion from the Seoul Olympics in 1988 for using steroids. Performance-enhancing drugs afflict many sports, but athletics, as the premier Olympic activity, has suffered most.
The irony is that, having tackled the problem head on rather than concealing it, the result has been a continuous drip-feed of allegations and expulsions. Athletics “news” is often perceived to be drugs news, something that Istvan Gyulai, the general secretary of the International Association of Athletics Federations, conceded at its congress that preceded the championships this week. A move to introduce a lifetime ban for doping offences was rejected by the congress, because of potential legal problems, but an increase from two to four years for a first offence, which the IAAF wants introduced in two years’ time, may help in the struggle.
The “transfers” of athletes’ allegiances between countries, mostly from Kenya to the Gulf states, is also creating problems. Evidence that at least one nation, Bahrain, is entering over-age former Africans in youth championships, is making the practice even more of a mockery. To try to counter the trend, the IAAF this week introduced a three-year waiting period before athletes can represent their adopted country.
Despite these efforts, the IAAF is simply not doing enough to emphasise the positive. For example, the disastrous policy that has resulted in the regular publicity vehicle that are the Grand Prix and Golden League meetings being available in many countries only on cable/satellite or even pay-per-view television.
Nevertheless, there will still be much to savour this week. One man we can rely on for entertainment is a Kenyan defector, Stephen Cherono, now known as Saïf Saaeed Shaheen of Qatar. Shaheen is a pathological showman – his eccentric tactics of dashing into a huge lead, then waiting for his former compatriots to catch him before winning by a vest-width, brought the house down both at the world championships and the World Athletics Final two years ago.
Carolina Klüft of Sweden is the distaff version, providing gurning and grimaces during the intervals between her equally enticing performances in the seven events of the heptathlon.
Paula Radcliffe’s many fans will be willing her to at least finish, unlike in Athens, her 10,000m and marathon races. Criticism of Radcliffe’s attempt to double up is mystifying. It is common practice among marathon runners to have a hard 10,000m, usually in a road race a week before a marathon. That Radcliffe should do hers on the track seems have elevated it to a crime against common sense.
Elsewhere, both men’s and women’s middle and long-distance races, pitting the Ethiopians against the Kenyans followed at a distance by the rest, should prove as intriguing as ever. But do not be surprised if you don’t know the winners’ names.