Athletics: The trail-blazer laser show

EXCLUSIVE: Britain plans to lead world in transforming the face of athletics. Alan Hubbard hears a visionary view from two Olympic greats;
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The Independent Online
LASER BEAMS across the long- jump pit, flashing lights illuminating the path and pitch of the javelin, and the 100m track stretched across the centre of the stadium rather than down one side of it. Such is the shape of athletics to come.

Plans are already being made for Britain to pioneer some of these dramatic innovations in the first major events to be held here in the new millennium: the European Cup at Gateshead in July and the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester.

Former Olympic stars Alan Pascoe and Sebastian Coe are behind the revolutionary moves which would transform athletics into the most spectator-friendly sport in the world. Last week Pascoe, the former Commonwealth gold and Olympic silver hurdling medallist, conferred with stadium officials in Gateshead about ways of "jazzing up" next year's European event, while a few days earlier in Monte Carlo double Olympic 1500m gold medallist Coe talked informally with officials of the International Amateur Athletics Federation about how the sport must meet the challenges of the new century with fresh ideas and new impetus.

Pascoe and Coe are managing director and chairman respectively of Fast Track, the marketing arm of British athletics. The past two years have seen an athletics revolution off the track in Britain, with suits and blazers being replaced by former illustrious competitors such as David Hemery and David Moorcroft, who now oversee UK Athletics.

Pascoe, the principal driving force behind the proposed shake-up, wants to see vigorous changes in how athletics is both performed and presented. He has drawn up a blueprint of ideas which has the backing of Coe and many other big names in the sport.

The most controversial suggestion is the staging of all the sprint events on an eight-lane track stripped, either vertically or diagonally, across the infield. Like the perimeter track, which would still be necessary for middle- and long-distance events, the lanes would be multicoloured. The long jump, triple jump and pole vault would also be moved to centre stage. Pascoe explains: "It has always been frustrating for spectators on the far side of the arena not to get a proper view of these events. The solution is to hold them in the middle so that everyone gets a full view.

"As far as the 100 metres is concerned, the track would have to be laid under a palletised surface, so that the grass pallets could be removed whenever required - rather like the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. Because of the number of heats and finals for both the men's and women's sprint and hurdles events, the timetable would need to be substantially revised, but this is quite workable. The 100 metres might also have to marginally overlap the perimeter track, and all these things can be looked at and overcome.

"And the day has to come when, particularly in the jumping events, you get an instant reading so that spectators know immediately what happened and whether or not a record has been broken."

Pascoe envisages a laser beam across the pit ("surely possible in this technological age"). He also thinks a similar technique could be used for the longer throwing events, notably the javelin and discus. "When Steve Backley runs up and throws, you should be able to know immediately whether it is 89.5 metres or whatever."

He suggests that, in international events, national flags mark the distance of the throw, and on top of them, flashing lights indicate the competitor's best throw. He believes that this will be one of the changes put into effect in Gateshead next year. "You certainly won't have the plethora of lines that make the field seem like a tram station. It is not just world records, but realising the closeness of the competition, which sends a tingle down people's spines."

Pascoe says that most of the short-term changes will be in the way certain events are presented. In the high jump and pole vault, for instance, competitors will have the opportunity for six jumps, but they will need to be more selective in picking when to opt in and out. They won't be able to keep going back for a second or third chance.

According to the Pascoe plan, major events of the future will feature two giant video screens at either end of the stadium, operating independently of the scoreboard so that spectators can follow more than one event at a time. "The name of the game now is making detailed information about every event available simultaneously."

Music, colour and pageantry will be part of the presentation package in Gateshead and at all future UK events. The accent, says Pascoe, has to be on speed, continuity and excitement, and programmes will be compressed into shorter timespans. "One of the fundamental aims is that the presentation in the stadium has to be synchronised with that of television," says Pascoe. "At the moment we are running the two in parallel, feeding off each other but ultimately there has to be one presentation. If say, Roger Black is presenting on television, then he will also be doing so in the stadium."

Pascoe predicts that, given IAAF approval, the large majority of these innovations will be in place internationally by 2005, when London hopes to stage the World Championships at a rebuilt Wembley. This is one reason why he is personally in favour of the portable track idea so vehemently opposed by the Sports Minister, Kate Hoey, and other traditionalists. "Providing this sort of track is the perfect opportunity to bring in these ideas. It would also create the bullring atmosphere with the crowd right on top of the action. People want value for money, not just in athletics but sport generally. Athletics has suffered by being pushed around by football, and the parameters of soccer are such that it is now beyond the reach of any other sport. But we have to compete; last year all our major events were sold out and the signs are that the coming season, in which we will have 10 televised events and the European Cup, will be similarly successful."

Although Coe disagrees with Pascoe over Wembley - he is among those who argued for a permanent track from the start, despite the soccer-first stance of his Chelsea chum Ken Bates -- Coe concurs that major changes are needed to keep athletics as a front-runner.

"The sport has to keep pace with the demands of the spectators. The days when you went into a stadium at seven and left two-and-a-half hours later without a proper explanation of what had been going on have gone. You've got to market and package it properly, recognise that public needs have to be embraced. To prosper, athletics has to compete in what is a very, very competitive market."