There can be little doubt that both Messrs Black and De Vos should be searching for new jobs come Monday (in any other sport they certainly would be). But to address the slump in athletics in this country, we must look beyond top management.
How do most people (particularly children) see athletics in the UK? They have little choice but to watch the BBC’s extensive coverage of the major championships and occasional Diamond League meetings. Here is where the problem starts. They only actually see a small percentage of the action happening in the stadium.
Last year, I moved to Spain and so am watching a second major athletics event (the first being the Olympics) on Eurosport España. It really is a revelation. Rather than have pundits in the studio, we spend the vast majority of the time watching athletics. Last night, I watched all the women’s triple jump and the hammer final. We never once had to go back to Gabby and her team to hear all about how amazing the crowd was.
I was in the UK this weekend for a wedding and so have seen a bit of the BBC’s offering this year. Across all outlets, inclusive of the BBC website and Five Live, the weekend was dominated by talk of Justin Gatlin. Various voices from across the sporting world were drafted in to pontificate about how awful Justin was and how it was terrible that he won.
Now, we haven’t the time to get into the rights or wrongs of that question here, but why on earth did we have to go over and over and over it? The sport is bigger than doping, but the BBC’s obsession with talking about it makes it an enormous story. The booing in the stadium and toxic atmosphere at the medal ceremony were caused in large part by the British media’s (led by the BBC) two-year commitment to the Good vs Evil battle of Bolt vs Gatlin.
Casual athletics fans (which is the clear majority) would probably be more interested in watching some athletics rather than hearing Paula Radcliffe and Steve Cram preach. Is it little wonder that kids are not interested anymore?
What other sports choose not to show any action in favour of talking about it instead? Would Sky ever spend the first 20 minutes of a live football match showing a discussion between Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher on diving? How are kids going to get into the hammer or the triple jump if they can’t see most of it? By repeatedly underlining and discussing what is wrong with the sport, it only adds to the perception that this is all there is.
From the reports I have heard from back home, last night was no better. Rather than show two field event finals live – seemingly the BBC only care how British athletes get on – the team spent 20 minutes debating the Caster Semenya situation. Again, it does not matter what one thinks of the merit in such debates. Such lengthy and largely ignorant discussion does nothing to promote track and field.
Athletics is dying, and not just in the UK. The post-Bolt/Farah era is a worrying prospect.
This is a problem largely of the IAAF’s own making as their media strategy has almost exclusively revolved around these two superstars. With them gone, all the BBC has left to do is rehash old doping stories and ignorantly discuss complex legal cases they cannot do anything about.
It is time for a root and branch change in British athletics – and I would start with the host broadcaster.
Words by James Fairbourn
Image from BBC iPlayer