But when you can’t even inspire the ready-made grassroots market that already exists to go and support, then you’re in trouble.
The problem becomes less about adding superficial style and more to do with the fundamental ideas – or lack thereof – underpinning what the sport is about and what the national governing body is trying to achieve.
Don’t buy the argument that it’s all to do with the lack of ‘stars’ on show. Interest in Diamond League meets may succumb to this point, perhaps. But the British Championships aren’t about that.
The weekend’s dire spectator turnout had next to nothing to do with a lack of star quality.
The British Championships should be about providing a platform for the best in the country to compete – not an attempt to empty the pockets of fans and athletes alike. Wouldn’t sponsors prefer a full house of engaged athletics fans rather than rafts of empty seats and British Athletics branding splashed across a waste of a stand on the back straight?
If only the powers that be, and unwitting media, realised that there’s enough value in the competition itself, instead of being perennially obsessed with creating the next big star on which to hang our hats. It’s lazy and derivative.
True, some of the events at the weekend, certainly from a middle distance perspective, were below-par.
Who knew our men’s 5,000m running was awash with such snowflakes? A quarter of those that started failed to complete twelve-and-a-half laps of the track. The first three aside, it wasn’t a particularly glowing example of an event that had seen recent shoots of recovery.
On the flipside, if we didn’t already know it, Sunday definitely proved that Scottish athletes are leading the British renaissance over 1500m. On the subject of failings and learnings to be made, the other home nations would do well to take a leaf out of Scottish Athletics’ book.
Saying that, did anybody else also come over a little emotional when Jess Judd got teary at the end of the 1500m? And it might have taken him a while to get going this season, for one reason or another, but Elliot Giles showed he’s by far the best racer we’ve got over 800m.
There are enough stories there – and that’s just a few from across the six middle distance events – for the media to buy into and British Athletics to sell and promote.
Pinpointing the poor showing to the absence of Farah, Muir and the like doesn’t deal with the greater issue at hand. Suggesting sponsors would walk away and media coverage would be even smaller if star names don’t turn out remains blind to the lack of creativity and imagination from those charged with taking the sport forward.
It lets them off the hook.
By suggesting that star names are all the audience care about is not only naïve but ignorant.
Take the British 10,000m Championships held at Parliament Hill a few weeks ago as a case in point. The starriest names attending were Jo Pavey and a man British Athletics has done its best to piss off on various occasions over the last five years.
The special guest appearances of Seb Coe and Paula Radcliffe for the legends seminar undoubtedly helped – but they were far from the be all and end all to the success of the event.
The Night of the 10,000m PBs reinvigorated a distance previously thought dead. At Parliament Hill, the grassroots community was engaged like never before. It’s now an event people talk about all-year-round.
That’s because a successful event comes from the athletes, spectators and the purity of athletics – rather than money and pithy hashtags designed only to tick off the social media engagement box.
The conditions aren’t in place at the national championships to foster this kind of grassroots support. Supporters are taken for granted and come a distant second to the blind pursuit of celebrity.
Athletics does not rest on a handful of individuals. There is no one saviour of the sport or messiah to take us into a brave new world.
Bums on seats, be it from free or reduced-price tickets for club runners or local schools, is surely more enticing to sponsors – and the athletes themselves – than the wasteland that the Alexander Stadium became over the weekend.
The pinnacle of the domestic calendar should be seen as just that. But it isn’t. Does the event need to be held in such a huge stadium? Can we not bring everybody closer to the action? Might there be a day for track finals and a day for field and jumps to allow that to happen?
These and many more suggestions are flying around. It just needs the governing bodies to take their heads out their arses for five minutes and wake up to the real problem undermining our sport. Namely, themselves.
Words by Bo James
Image from Andrew Peat