On New Year’s Day, I was part of a discussion on Radio Scotland about the previous sporting year plus the upcoming one (it was on-air first thing in the morning don’t worry, you weren’t the only one who wasn’t listening). When the chat turned to athletics, the general consensus was that the sport was done. It was agreed that with doping scandal after doping scandal plaguing the sport in the past twelve months, it could never recover. Knowing what we know now, how could anyone trust a track and field athlete again? It is a legitimate concern.
Quite simply, 2017 has to be a good year for athletics. If it’s not, it could very well continue fading until it is very much in the backwaters of sport. Athletics remains the flagship Olympic sport but, if the forthcoming 12 months fail to breathe some life back into it, it could be a gonner. The doping issue aside, athletics faces many other challenges, with one of the most significant being that it is not a great spectator sport. Major championships, in particular, are struggling significantly to attract crowds with countless sessions, particularly morning sessions, being watched by what looks like one man and his dog in the stadium. Sessions are long with, at times, little action going on. The high jump is happening but you’re seated at the other side of the stadium? Oh well, you can’t watch it. This is, admittedly, a logistical problem that isn’t easily resolved but even so, athletics must make itself more attractive to spectators or it could, potentially, die forever. Even with the drug issue omnipresent, if the sport is exciting, intriguing and dramatic to spectators, they will buy tickets but, at present, these are qualities that athletics is lacking.
Step forward one Usain Bolt. The most valuable asset that athletics possesses has put his full backing behind a new project called “Nitro Athletics”, a six-team competition that will take place in Melbourne, Australia with the series beginning next month. The 24-athlete teams which are taking place are Usain Bolt’s All-Stars, England, China, Japan, Australia and New Zealand in a new-look format with more “innovative” disciplines being combined with traditional track and field events.
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Some of the new events include a hurdles relay, an ‘elimination mile’, the 150m, a ‘three minute run’ and a 4x100m mixed relay. Sebastian Coe, president of the sport’s governing body, the IAAF, has said that the Nitro Series is “what needs to be done to revolutionise the sport”, before adding: “We need innovation and more opportunities for our athletes to interact with fans and show their personalities and Nitro Athletics is a great example of what can be done and what needs to be done to revolutionise how we present our sport and how our fans connect with the sport and the athletes.”
On the face of it, Nitro Athletics sounds like something of a gimmick but athletics has to be applauded for at least trying to rejuvenate itself, something that too many sports fail to even attempt. Gone are the days of athletics being a headline story on the six o’clock news but there is no reason why interest cannot be rekindled, at least to some extent. Twenty20 cricket worked wonders and brought an entirely new audience to the sport, in large part because spectators did not have to sit on a hard seat for hours until their bum went numb before they got a result. The biggest coup for Nitro Athletics is that the event has the backing of Bolt, the one true superstar of the sport and while he is expected to retire from international competition after the World Championships in London this summer, the fact he has signed on to take part in Nitro Athletics in what is likely to be his last competitive season is significant. It remains to be seen if Nitro Athletics – or any other innovation – can breath some life into a sport that has been decimated by negative headlines in recent years but athletics must be congratulated for at least trying.
AND ANOTHER THING…
Andy Murray deserves every single accolade that is bestowed upon him but the knighthood that he was awarded in the New Year’s honours list, alongside countless of his fellow athletes, only served to highlight quite how ridiculous the honours system has become.
It surely lost its last remnant of credibility when Sam Cam’s hairdresser (or whatever she was) was awarded an OBE last year but I do realise that the honours system does mean a lot to many people and it can be fitting recognition for volunteers who dedicate their lives to helping others.
However, we are now at the stage that any athlete who does reasonably well in his or her field is met immediately with a clamour to bestow at least an MBE on him or her. The honours system has long been anachronistic but it is now also fast becoming meaningless. Athletes already have a fitting reward system in place – it’s called the winner’s trophy – so let’s end this farce of a meaningless honour being awarded by the establishment.