August 12, 2005
Flagging interest hits European chances
By Owen Slot
The power struggle for the future of international competition
ATHLETICS is losing its appeal so fast that some senior administrators are pushing for drastic change.
The European countries recently voted unanimously to stage a European Championships every two years instead of the World Championships.
But Lamine Diack, the president of the IAAF, the world governing body, told The Times: “This idea will not work.”
A power struggle at the top of the sport is thus developing, with the directors of the leading athletics meetings and a strong European faction frustrated that Diack is not responding as they would like to the signs that their sport needs to be revamped.
“The media coverage of our sport is reducing,” Hansjörg Wirz, the president of the European Athletics Association, said. “Marketing income is more difficult to get, too. In the UK, Germany and Italy, the sport is shrinking. There are signs that we have to take responsibility, that we cannot just wait and see what happens.”
Athletics has a decreasing appeal for many reasons, the key of which is the scarcity of terrestrial television coverage of the Grand Prix meetings. When the IAAF recently sold the rights to the Golden League, the biggest meetings outside of the World Championships, the deal of $3.2 million (about £1.8 million) per annum was more than $1 million lower than the previous deal. Viewing figures for the World Championships in Paris in 2003 also demonstrate that athletics is struggling to appeal to a younger audience: half of the viewers in Britain and Germany were older than 55.
“Athletics is no longer a modern product, it needs to be reinvented,” Luciano Barra, the chief executive of the Turin 2006 Winter Olympics, said. “If the Golden League is no longer of interest to the BBC or ITV, then it’s not good for me.”
Two years ago, Barra submitted a paper on the structure of global competition to the IAAF. “The World Cup and the World Athletics Final make no sense,” he wrote. “It is crazy to have a World Athletics Final only a few weeks after the World Championships. The two are not compatible. The public is bored.”
Dissatisfaction has peaked this week in Helsinki. “There’s considerably more talk than before, with people saying: ‘Something must change,’ ” Alan Pascoe, Britain’s leading promoter, said. “I am a fan of a Europeans every two years. There is a need to revamp the sport, especially in terms of its appeal to the youth.”
The air of frustration will not be helped by Diack, who said that he believes “the health of the sport is quite good”. Nor will those pursuing change like the news that Diack hopes to remain as president after 2007, when his first term is completed. And he said that the unloved World Athletics Final should stay, too.
The split between Europe and the IAAF is partly a reflection of the success of Diack’s policy to make athletics a global sport. The result is that medals in Helsinki are going to all corners of the world; the problem is that the European giants, who traditionally bring the funding and crowds to the sport, are being weakened.
Diack is in favour of gradual change, but he has little sympathy for Europe: “What prevents Europe progressing globally? It is not a problem with European or world competition, it is an internal problem. Developed countries have the challenge of other competing occupations: the games consoles, the DVDs, other sports.
“And in Europe they do have support. In the United Kingdom they have government and lottery support, a lot of possibilities for development. The other continents have nothing yet. OK, Europe has problems, but the world is a village. We have to consider our athletes all over the world.”