Stand out performances in the first British Milers Club Grand Prix of the season included Jenny Meadows storming to an Olympic 800m QT (2:01.29) with ease and Bobby Clay finishing half a lap ahead of her nearest rivals to clinch the World Juniors 3000m standard.
One week later on a typically windswept track in the no less imposing shadow of Parliament Hill, some of the country’s finest lined up to try and secure a spot on the plane to Rio or Amsterdam this summer in the 10,000m.
Here we had two evenings of top track racing just one week apart. But, they couldn’t have been more different.
The Sport City event should have taken the plaudits. The conditions were nigh on perfect, the track was pristine, the quality and depth of field was almost spot on and the array of middle distance events should have provided the bigger draw.
And yet, it wasn’t. If you zoomed south along the M1 to breezy north London a week later, you would have witnessed thousands of people – a City of London headcount reckoned close to 5,000 – lining a track probably in need of a re-lay madly cheering on six 10,000m showdowns.
Remember the stories coming out of Australia just a couple of years ago that suggested the 10,000m was one of five events under significant threat of being removed from the Olympic schedule?
What folly! And some people say the IAAF is out of touch with the sport.
There is no doubt that the BMC continues to produce a very high standard of competition that provides a PB platform for aspiring club runners.
Earning the right to wear a BMC vest by reaching the challenging standards is still seen as an achievement. It is also obvious to see that BMC races are far better than British Athletics League races or BWALs for turn out and quality. In terms of standing and substance, the Grand Prix is very much a middle-distance version of the Diamond League in terms of prestige but obviously on a lesser, British scale.
But why did that evening in Manchester – or Watford a couple of weeks later for that matter – lack the palpable excitement of the Night of the PBs?
Despite the prestige, the BMC still represents something of an old guard that dominates the sport. The club is deliberately (and quite rightly) exclusive for athletes, but why also make it exclusive for spectators?
In Manchester, there were at most a hundred or so people, mainly comprising the athletes themselves, applauding the country’s finest. It is highly unlikely that the event was publicised at all to the local community. If we want to grow the popularity of the sport in this country, the revival must come from a local grassroots level. If a 5,000-strong crowd will turn out for 150 laps of track action then they’re likely to turn out to watch Olympic hopefuls tussling it out at a BMC Grand Prix.
That isn’t to say the BMC must have fire breathers and a bar on the back straight. The key element of a BMC event is that it strives to ‘create the conditions in which athletes have the best possible chance of achieving fast times.’ Paid pacemakers are used to drive up standards and the personal best return certainly suggests it’s worthwhile: consistently good pacemakers aren’t always easy to find.
But equally, as an organisation that ‘is pleased to be supported by Nike and British Athletics’ as well as being in partnership with England Athletics leading up to the Commonwealth Games, surely it isn’t such a hard ask to try and engage the public more and put on a more spectator-friendly event.
Growth and renewed interest in the sport isn’t going to come from a bloated and overpriced Diamond League circuit with such a narrow target demographic. More of an attempt needs to be made locally, to engage the public and attract more than those who already love the sport.
The Night of the PBs has shown the way in engaging a younger, less athletics-obsessed audience in re-engaging with the excitement of distance running. And what’s more, it was free.
People talk about wanting to make track running aspirational and popular in the UK again, harking back to an age when everyone knew who the country’s finest athletes were.
The change has to come from promoting and improving grassroots events in our own country to make them more accessible and exciting to the casual observer. Only then will a change in attitude and an upturn in standards occur.
The BMC is good at what it does, but with the support behind it there is no reason why it couldn’t be a lot better.
Words by Bo James
This article appears in the fourth edition of Left Spike from July 2016