Athletics: Illwill Games so off the pace: Norman Fox argues that as a championship event St Petersburg was a non-contender

Click to follow
The Independent Online
SO WHERE was the goodwill in the Goodwill Games, the past week's biggest non-event of the summer? There was Mike Powell wittering on about Carl Lewis opting out of the long jump; Jackie Joyner- Kersee's husband ranting on because some Russian official thought javelins dipped in beer get high, or higher than teetotal ones; and Noureddine Morceli and Moses Kiptanui striking a deal with the organisers to have pacemakers, which destroyed the whole dubious conception of the Games being a championship rather than just another anything-goes grand prix meeting.

The Powell-Lewis incident was nothing more than an ongoing row. Everyone knows that Lewis is going through the motions and Powell was simply angry that the multi-Olympic gold medal winner was not jumping through enough hoops in the Santa Monica Club's travelling circus. As for the allegedly spiked javelins, surely when the Americans admitted that the sticky substance the official had noticed on the grip was beer, the official should have been asking who had been drinking the proscribed drug when it was so carelessly spilled?

But what of pacemaking? The old debate has been revived this season mainly because of the number of times the invincible Morceli has shown that for him pace is no problem; neither is the need for company. Yet still the pacemakers pick up their percentage of the appearance money.

Admittedly there are one or two occasions in a season when all of the conditions are right, a strong field is gathered and a tough world record is only likely to beaten with the right initial pace. After all, even the eminent good Dr Bannister accepted some pacemaking when he broke the four-minute mile. The problem today, though, is that when someone decides to make a big effort to break the Isle of Wight all-comers' record for the Shanklin Seven Hundred Yards he immediately wants a pacemaker. The formality of the front-running hare is no longer questioned, and when it comes to the grand prix circuit, the professional three- lap wonders are on to a good living.

What athletics urgently needs to realise is that what has become accepted within the sport is not acceptable to the potential spectator or television viewer. The absurdity of having a pacemaker who sticks doggedly to a preconceived pace long after the rest of the field has decided to stay together, ignore him or her and blast it out over the last 200 metres simply takes credibility away from the sport.

That applies particularly in Britain where crowd figures for major events this season have been disappointing, and there is no sign as yet of the British Athletic Federation's signing a new television contract for the next one. Anything that discredits the sport at this moment is a danger which needs to be eliminated.

Banning pacemaking altogether could result in some records remaining in the book for a few more seasons, but that would be more than offset by avoiding what has become a readily accepted convention. Unfortunately, a few days ago the International Amateur Athletic Federation effectively gave clearance for pacemaking to continue and even prosper. In a move conveniently lost in the reporting of the Goodwill Games, the IAAF's president, Primo Nebiolo, confirmed that they were looking into the awarding of prize-money at the 1997 world championships which - in a move that brought a literal interpretation to 'the height of folly' - they have awarded to Mexico City, thus endangering the health of middle- and long-distance runners.

If prize-money becomes automatic in championship events, the pacemakers will fly in like buzzards to raw meat. Nebiolo is trying to pass the buck to the International Olympic Committee. If the IOC agrees to prize-money, the Olympic Games themselves will just become another honeypot. Of course Olympic champions become hot property, but the principle has always been that on the day honour is enough.

Not that controversy over prize-money, pacemakers or the specific gravity of javelins meant much to the people of St Petersburg who ignored the Goodwill junket. At times there were more newspaper, television and radio reporters in the stadium than spectators, but then it was always going to be a media event.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments