Familiarity breeds discontent

Norman Fox argues that the world championships have lacked scarcity value
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The Independent Online
IN 10 years' time anyone looking back at the 1995 World Athletics Championships may conceivably remember them for that nice Jonathan Edwards twice breaking the world triple jump record, Innessa Kravets of the Ukraine breaking the women's version once, Michael Johnson peerless in the 200 and 400 metres, Sergei Bubka still beyond reach on the pole vault and Kim Batten snatching Sally Gunnell's 400m hurdles world record.

More likely they will only recall that it was the year in which Linford Christie collapsed on the track and never appeared at another major championship. Such is the repetitiveness of the world's top athletes competing against each other week after week that these world finals and even the Olympics no longer have that scarcity value.

That simple conclusion is confirmation of fears expressed five years ago when the decision was made to hold the championships every two years rather than four. Devaluation set in. There is too little outstanding talent spread across too many days and, worse, the event has been seriously damaged by the frequency with which the top athletes meet each other on the circuit.

The International Amateur Athletic Federation president, Primo Nebiolo, has been the prime mover behind the championships' being held more frequently and, for television reasons, extending it across nine days, so there is no reason to sympathise with him. But he is not the only one saying that the growing number of invitation meetings is leaving nothing for the precious occasions.

A lot of the not-quite-champions here such as Darnell Hall, the American who finished sixth in the 400m behind Johnson, will openly admit that they arrived lacking real enthusiasm for what should be a championship second only to the Olympics. They get paid nothing (officially) for appearing, so winning a bronze medal or merely qualifying for a final is worth less than a third place in Oslo or Monte Carlo.

Hall said: "The world championships have status but only for winners. The Olympics is the thing, but even they lose some of their magic when the finals are no different to the races we all run in Europe every summer."

For Britain the withdrawals from the team have made this year's championships quickly forgettable save only for the too-good-to-be-true Edwards with his unfathomable leaps to fame. For the rest even Johnson and Bubka seemed to be holding back for a big pay day at a time when the sport is in financial and physical decline.

This summer we have seen the fading of great stars, among them Carl Lewis and Heike Drechsler, who were both around when the championships started in 1983. There are too few new ones on the horizon, not least in Britain. So the sport needs a few more encores from Christie in particular. Christie went on television after the 100m and in effect said his final farewell but to relegate him to the library of past champions without taking into account his perversity simply invites him to come off the shelf a few more times.

On the day after his torn hamstring resulted in his failure to retain his world title he was full of bitterness, saying he would never compete in the big time again. Yet only a few hours later he was laughing with friends and telling them the only thing he would not be doing in the coming year was the Olympics. He knows there are still some plums left for him on the grand prix tree.

Whether he runs at a high level again is less important than the strength of his legacy to the sport in Britain. It had always been assumed that his acting as a role-model would inevitably lead tosuccessors. While the World Junior Championships showed there are several young sprinters coming through, for the moment Darren Braithwaite, Solomon Wariso and John Regis have only a small measure of his enormous ability.

These pallid championships have emphasised that Britain, like the United States, is entering a fallow period as a result of a sprinting demise. But for Britain the situation is worsened by the advancing years of the crowd-pullers Colin Jackson and Sally Gunnell. The born-again Edwards alone could probably fill a church but not a cathedral. His belated emergence is obviously welcome but, as he admits himself, maintaining the astonishing standards he has set will be difficult. He may verge on the charismatic in his religion but he's not like that at all; an unassuming guise rarely sustains public interest which was why when the man from the Sun said surely he must have some vices Edwards thought long and hard before admitting to liking a glass of wine. "Thank God for that," the scribe replied.

Edwards' success has drawn attention to the fact that in monetary terms one of the most successful people at these championships is the bluff agent and sacked former British Athletic Federation promotions officer, Andy Norman. The official IAAF list of approved managers modestly suggests that Norman's only customer is Edwards but he also represents more than 20 athletes including Kelly Holmes, Steve Backley, Tony Jarrett, Yvonne Murray and Du'aine Ladejo.

And the list is growing. British athletes increasingly despair of the federation's apparent aloofness and inflexibility and are turning to the well-known street-wise dealings of Norman. The link between the Bible- quoting Edwards and Norman is something that is bound to help Norman's already considerable influence over the sport.

Curiously, it was Norman who was always being criticised for saying that triple jumpers, long-distance runners and most women athletes were superfluous and of no interest to potential spectators. Edwards has made a lot of conversions.

`Rejoice in that day and leap for joy'

A little Sunday reading for Jonathan Edwards

"The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong." Ecclesiastes 11

"By my God I can leap over a wall."

2 Samuel, 22:30

"Did you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one earns the prize? So run, that you may obtain it."1 Corinthians, 9:24

"Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us."

Hebrews 12:1

"He looked this way and that, and seeing no one he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand." Exodus 2:12

"He made my feet like hinds' feet, and set me secure on the heights."

2 Samuel 23:34

"Gold, silver, bronze . . . must be put through the fire, and then it will be clean." Numbers 31: 22, 23

"Rejoice in that day and leap for joy." Luke 6:23