Athletics: New deals and Pascoe for athletics

Alan Hubbard meets the poacher turned keeper of the running game
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FOR THREE months Alan Pascoe awaited a word from his sponsor. When it came on Friday there was an audible sigh of relief. The ace package dealer had delivered again, landing a pounds 10m underwriting of British Athletics from insurance giants CGU - neatly just in time for today's opening meeting of the domestic season in Gateshead.

For Pascoe, the one-time Olympian turned orchestrator- in-chief, it is the opportunity for his new company, Fast Track, to start taking athletics out of the slow lane. The commercial and promotion arm of born-again UK Athletics, Fast Track means business in every sense for the financially stricken sport, with Pascoe and his 20-strong team determined to restore both its glamour and its status. Gateshead, he believes, sees the dawn of a new era. Not that Pascoe has done too badly out of the old one.

His personal success story has been well charted - from hard- up hurdler to wealthy self-made man. He never said how many millions he's made out of his sports management and marketing enterprises - the taxman tends to keep cuttings of these sort of interviews - but his Thameside homestead was once owned by Dave Gilmore of Pink Floyd and his annual traditional pre-Christmas bash has a guest list of at least a dozen millionaires, from Jeffrey Archer upwards - or downwards, depending how you look at it. He claims he's not nearly as rich as the supplements say but he certainly has closer to pounds 16m than the pounds 16 he had in the bank when he returned from honeymoon with his athlete wife Della 29 years ago.

Pascoe considers all this money talk irrelevant - except when it comes to coining in the cash for the betterment of British athletics, which is now his motivation. He is determined, he says, to get the sport up and running again, but knows the race will be tough.

"There's a collective responsibility to drive athletics forward and lift it out of the mire," he says. "I don't think all the athletes and agents realise just how tenuous the situation is. The sport is not so much fighting for its financial survival as it is for credibility and status, especially its position on the sports pages.

"These past few years athletics has been hanging on by its fingertips in terms of image. We have spent as much time on improving this image as we have chasing companies to put money in. Athletics has been easily our most successful sport over the years but soccer now dominates everything. All other sports are overwhelmed by it and only the really big events like Wimbledon can fight through. It is a very unhealthy situation and athletics has got to get itself back on a par at least with rugby and cricket in terms of personality and events."

Presentation will be "jazzed up" and more attention paid to giving the paying public better information and more value for their money. Certain events will be showcased and the programmes will be slicker. A veritable pairing of Dazzle and Pascoe, you might say.

There will be jumbo video screens for instant replays and larger digital scoreboards that can be seen without binoculars in all parts of the arena. "We want to ensure that the fans in the stadium are given as much information as they would get if they were back home listening to David Coleman's commentary." Ah yes. The famous tortured tonsils will be warbling again on the BBC's behalf this season, with the corporation back as the mainstream broadcasters of domestic athletics. It was Pascoe's Fast Track who enticed a nice fat contract out of the Beeb, almost double the pounds 10.5m he secured from ITV through his former company, API, in 1984. "With this and the CGU deal, British athletics has got almost as much money as David Beckham."

This year has seen the total transformation of athletics off the track. The old boys in blazers have been relegated to the back room by energetic men in suits who once wore tracksuits. UK Athletics, which has replaced the bankrupted British Athletic Federation, is presided over by the former Olympic champion David Hemery with David Moorcroft as its chief executive. Pascoe has brought in Sebastian Coe as chairman of Fast Track while Ian Stewart is the athletes' co-ordinator and Dave Bedford organises the London Marathon. So the one-time poachers are now the keepers of the game, a sort of ex-athletes' co-operative.

The once rebellious Pascoe was labelled as the sport's shop steward, in the past vociferously arguing the case for the end of shamateurism. Now, at 52 he is the capitalist boss who insists he wants to see the rank and filers sharing in any financial windfalls. "But we must be careful," he warned. "You now have people in charge of the sport who have commercial realism - but some of the athletes need that too. It would be wrong for an old stager like me to say that we shouldn't have full-time professional competitors. Of course we should. But the sport has reached a desperate period and I'm not totally comfortable with all this talk of athletes being paid to represent their country. I don't think that getting pounds 800 or pounds 8,000 to compete for Britain would mean that you come second rather than third."

Pascoe is suggesting that all such payments to elite performers should be locked in to their Lottery grants and should include contractual obligations to help promote the sport. "I'd like to see bonuses for representing your country and getting medals. Anyone who wins in Sydney should receive a very significant bonus - say pounds 100,000. You could even ensure against the risk and make it pounds 1m. That's what the Spaniards did. With the right sort of insurance deal it could be very cost effective." Spoken like a true broker's man.

Pascoe's immediate problem, however, is getting more bums on seats at Gateshead. "Here we have one of the strongest meets ever held in Britain in what is traditionally a hotbed of athletics. But the ticket sales are no more than ok. Whether everyone is simply besotted with soccer up there I don't know."

At least a couple of hours of BBC exposure could help push up the profile of a sport which probably reached its zenith in the golden era of Coe and co. After a dismal Olympics in Atlanta, athletics seemed to be kicked into touch not only by football, but doping scandals and the financial demise of the BAF. Now the handy millions from the BBC and CGU can put some of the colour back into its cheeks and Pascoe reckons that the present crop of youngsters are as good as any in the sport's history. A resurgence may be on the way, but he urges caution.

"It is all very well saying there is a lot of new money available now but the sport in Britain is still catching up after 100 years of nil investment."

At least it will be catching up on the fast track, if Alan Pascoe has anything to do with it.

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