Athletics: Gloom and doom? Absolutely not, says positive Pascoe

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The Independent Online

These are worrying times for British athletics. What once was the most glamorous and successful of all British sports now seems to be on its uppers. True, Friday's London Grand Prix is likely to be a sellout, but it is hardly a hard sell.

Like a Wimbledon final, it is one of those sporting events where the show is a greater attraction than the cast, even if on this occasion the majority of British names are familiar only to regular readers of Athletics Weekly. But Alan Pascoe's team will ensure the night's entertainment is presented slickly, professionally and televisually. That's the name of their game.

"Last year's Crystal Palace meet was the best in the world, and it will be up there again this year," promises the chairman of the promoters, Fast Track. He does admit, though, that there is "a bit of a lull" generally in attracting audiences to the sport. "But athletics is still good television, a product that is tailor-made for the box." But is it still box-office?

Absolutely, says Pascoe. The way he promotes the sport you would think he was a disciple if not of Don King, then certainly of Frank Warren. He always talks a good fight, and knows how to talk one up.

So does the current downturn in the sport's achievement levels - Britain's worst-ever showing at a world championships last year and England's lowest medal count at a Commonwealth Games since 1970 - suggest gloom and doom are now athletics' running mates? "Absolutely not," he retorts, indicating that in the past fortnight there have been two significant events - the English Schools National Championships at Gateshead and the European Trials - which showed there might be some exciting new kids on the starting blocks.

Even Lord Coe, while warning that no one should get carried away, said that he sees "a glimmer of hope" for the now most barren but once most productive area of the sport, middle-distance running, espec-ially with the radical programme launched last week by UK Athletics aimed at boosting the number of young athletes making the transition to senior competition. "Seb's right," says Pascoe. "Both in the schools championships and the trials there was more middle-distance talent with the potential to get to world finals than we've had in the past 15 years."

Pascoe, an Olympic hurdles silver medallist in 1972 and a schoolteacher in the early Seventies, talks enthusiastically about the "Class of 2012". "We now have a whole bunch of talented youngsters who will mature by then. Fifty per cent of those kids we saw in finals at Gateshead could be contenders for the Olympic team.

"We've got six years, which may seem a long time, but remember Seb himself was at national schools championship level six years before he won Olympic gold in Moscow. Look at the age of Olympic champions from Athens. If you are going to make it in athletics you've got to be there at 19, 20 or 21. I think the Class of 2012 was on display in Gateshead. Or is in the system already.

"There is plenty of talent out there, youngsters like Emily Pidgeon, Becky Lyne, Tyrone Edgar. Greg Rutherford was only a centimetre behind Lynn Davies' long-jump record." But he warns not to expect too much too soon. "We might have to live through another few years where we are not as successful at world level as we'd like to be." So, don't expect many medals in Beijing, then.

One of Pascoe's pet projects has been to get a major corporate sponsorship for school sport. He has now done so with Sainsbury's on a three-year deal which, he says will "re-energise" the sport. Daley Thompson has been enlisted to add "motivational stardust" to the next generation, and Pascoe believes other icons, including Linford Christie, should be similarly encouraged.

"Linford is a born coach and motivator. He should be out there. He's done his penance; it's time to move on."

Pascoe adds: "The biggest issue the sport continues to face is that since the mid-Eighties there has been less involvement by schoolteachers, and so the platform for kids to get athletics experience that might keep them in the sport has been reduced. But athletics is not alone in that, it is [a problem for] school sport per se."

Which brings him neatly to the Government-backed UK School Games, which Fast Track will promote and organise on behalf of the Youth Sports Trust, who have received a five-year financial package of £6m from the Treasury and £1.5m from the Lottery. Questions have been asked in Parliament about the tendering process but Pascoe, who has also elicited sponsorship from Visa, shrugs off any controversy, pointing to the Fast Track record. "We are clearly the number one agency for doing this sort of thing, and the people you would expect them to turn to. It will give the kids a real flavour of being in an Olympic-style environment." The first Games will be held in Glasgow from 7 to 10 September, with 1,200 competitors in five sports.

Fast Track last year acquired Lighthouse, one of Britain's top communications agencies, and with a staff now approaching 100 will soon be moving to new offices in Pimlico. Pascoe, at 58, intends to remain the driving force in a business which has created the Paralympic World Cup, and embraces sponsorship and promotion in sailing, golf, rowing, rugby football, tennis - and the National Lottery.

"To be honest I was going to take a step back, but helping to get the Games for 2012 [he was a bid vice-chairman] was the Olympic gold medal I never won as an athlete. I am so re-energised by that."

As well as actively seeking sponsorship for the London Games - "a real challenge" - Fast Track are also advising on Glasgow's bid for the 2014 Commonwealth Games. "We have got to look beyond 2012, and I can't think of a better event for Britain that would follow an Olympic Games."

Pascoe believes that the acquisition of the Olympics might herald the advent of a whole series of world events for Britain. "This could be the beginning of a new sporting economy, which is great for the country - and great for our business, too." Absolutely.