Athletics: Trouble for Zurich as money talks

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The Independent Online
THE WELTKLASSE meeting in Zurich, traditionally known as the seven-hour Olympics, created a problem for itself last year. A stupendous night of athletics saw three world records set. Follow that.

Tonight, the organisers of the world's outstanding one-day meeting attempt to do just that, with the usual collection of world- class talents. Or most of them.

This year, Zurich is yoked within the International Amateur Athletic Federation's new vehicle for grand prix meetings, the Golden League. And the withdrawal of top sprinters Maurice Greene and Ato Boldon from tonight's programme in the Letzigrund Stadium points to fundamental flaws in the new design.

Greene and Boldon, world champions respectively at 100 and 200 metres, have pulled out after failing to agree terms with the meeting promoter.

But the problem lies not so much with Zurich as with the structure of the Golden League, which is heavily weighted towards rewarding athletes for performance, and away from the more traditional method of awarding appearance fees.

Appearance fees are still being paid - top performers such as Haile Gebrselassie, who lowered the world 5,000m mark in an outstanding race in Zurich last summer, are getting an estimated $60,000 (pounds 36,800) on a scale which goes down to $10,000 (pounds 6,100).

However, the overall trend is to pay fewer athletes less money up front, partly in response to frequently repeated criticism that some athletes were simply turning up and going through the motions at grand prix events.

Five athletes in Zurich - Gebrselassie, Bryan Bronson (400m hurdles), Marion Jones (100m), Charity Opara (400m) and Hicham El Guerrouj (1500m) - are still in with a chance of winning a share in the $1m (pounds 610,000) jackpot on offer to those who win their event at all six Golden League meetings and the concluding grand prix final in Moscow on 5 September.

Greene and Boldon are among many athletes, including the world and Olympic 400m champion, Michael Johnson, who are out of the running having lost at least once. With that motivation gone, both sought what was believed to be an appearance fee of around $100,000 (pounds 61,000) to compete at a meeting where the total budget is around 5.6m Swiss francs - slightly below pounds 3m.

While such money might have been paid in previous years, the organisers of Golden League meetings are now tied in to a less flexible structure. It was no go - and no show.

But Emanuel Hudson, Greene and Boldon's manager, said yesterday that the scales had tilted too far in the other direction. "The IAAF have put a carrot out there that is basically impossible for anyone to get," he said.

"What are the chances of Maurice or Ato winning all seven races against all the other top sprinters? The IAAF have decided they are going to spend less money on the athletes and keep more themselves."

Given the timing of the dispute, the comments yesterday of the IAAF president, Primo Nebiolo - "with the IAAF Golden League, athletics is putting on a show worthy of any Olympics" - sat uneasily.

That said, tonight's programme promises another rich slice of athletic endeavour. Gebrselassie faces the task of deciding whether to go for yet another record in the 5,000m - having subsequently lowered his mark to 12min 39.36sec - or concentrate on winning to stay in the hunt for the jackpot.

His task will be easier than last year, as the man who ran him so close on that occasion, Daniel Komen of Kenya, is running shorter distances this season, and will face the new world record holder for 1500m, El Guerrouj.

Jonathan Edwards, jumping well but failing to put his foot down in the right place, has a last chance to fine tune his technique before challenging for the European title next week.

Edwards, who failed to record a distance in the triple jump at Monte Carlo on Saturday, reports that the left ankle which has troubled him this season did not react badly following his efforts at the weekend. If he can get near the distance he estimated he had travelled on the last of his efforts - around 17.80 metres - he is likely to progress with another victory.

Britain's leading 400m men, Iwan Thomas and Mark Richardson, face a field that once again includes Michael Johnson. Both will have their eyes on the British record of 44.36sec which they both missed by a narrow margin in Monaco, although Thomas is planning to run a more cagey race than he did on that occasion, when he started strongly and faded to allow Richardson past him on the line.

For all that Messrs Greene and Boldon will be absent from the sprint, the event will be a big occasion for Britain's newly installed world junior champion at 100 and 200 metres, Christian Malcolm.