Athletics: Sponsors struggle to succeed in name game

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LIFE JUST gets better and better for Nelson Mandela. First they free him from jail and make him president of South Africa. Then they name the World Cup of athletics after him!

Mandela was so gracious about this week's piece of political opportunism, you might have though it marked the crowning glory of his career. The word "humbled" was mentioned. But then this was the man who described meeting the Spice Girls as one of the finest occasions of his life.

The South African president could hardly refuse the International Amateur Athletic Federation's offer, especially as the event is to be held in Johannesburg two weeks from now. What he may not have been fully aware of is the fact that the athletic version of the World Cup does not correspond to that of football. In footballing terms, it is the Toulon Trophy, a hybrid affair created a few years ago by the aggrandising instincts of the IAAF's president, Primo Nebiolo.

The competition has been held sporadically in recent years - 1989, 1992, 1994, and now 1998 - for largely political convenience. And for many taking part, the teams they represent - the Americas, Africa, Europe - are too large and arbitrary to command particular loyalty.

One example. At the 1989 World Cup in Barcelona, I was sitting in a hotel lobby with the Scottish athlete Yvonne Murray, who had won the 3,000m for Europe, when a team official arrived and chastised her for putting the flag of St Andrew around her shoulders on the victory lap. Murray shrugged those same shoulders. Who runs for Europe?

More than once, amid an increasingly congested fixture list, the survival of this competition-of-convenience has been questioned. If the predictions should eventually prove correct, Mandela would at least have the distinction of outlasting the trophy his name has been linked with - a reversal of the normal trend.

Twenty years ago, the town council of Harlow in Essex decided to re-name one of their streets in honour of the then jailed South African leader. First Avenue was rechristened Mandela Avenue and has been known by local residents as First Avenue ever since. As before.

I can still picture the look of mingled disdain and disgust on the face of one of my former sports editors when he was requested to refer to the Derby - an event which had held particular sway over his heart, and wallet for many years - as the Ever Ready Derby. The response was negative. People don't like change. And in the sporting domain, the more changes they register in connection with a particular trophy, the more that trophy is diminished.

Take for instance the Milk, sorry, Littlewoods, sorry, Worthington Cup which forms the third domestic prize behind the League and FA Cup. Names slip off it as easily and frequently as the coloured ribbons of victorious teams. And through it all, the great British sporting public still think of the competition as the League Cup - its first incarnation in the early 1960's.

It is all very vexing for the sponsors. The desire on their part is to intertwine their name so closely with an event that the two are inseparable. Historically, the smartest way to do this is to arrive at the same time as a new event and call it after you. Hence the Gillette Trophy, a perfect example of the genre. But such opportunities are rare. And there are so many other difficulties for the sponsor to contend with. Not the least of which is something I shall term "Negative Impact".

As I write, I am back in the rackety stand at Harlow Sportscentre - it seems my subconscious has an Essex postcode - waiting for Harlow Town's footballers to emerge from the darkness of their dressing-room for another exciting tourney in the Berger Isthmian League.

After the requisite amount of deafening blowing on the microphone - why must they always do that? - and subsequent chat, our announcer for the afternoon completes his pre-match duties by putting on the Berger jingle. It is a tune of such staggering banality that it must surely persuade every spectator within listening distance never to contemplate buying any product connected with that name. Certainly it has that effect on me.

What, I sometimes wondered, if the club offered not to play the Berger jingle, providing a quota of those spectators present - say five - could produce a small tin of Berger paint or proof of recent purchase. Now that could have done something for the sales figures.

Note to any perspective sponsor. In proverbial terms, convincing people to love your name because it is attached to a sporting trophy usually comes down to this: You can't lead a horse to water, and you can't make it drink.