Athletics must boost its image if the likes of Dina Asher-Smith are to make headlines

COMMENT: Dina Asher-Smith broke the 100m record on one of the busiest sporting weekends of the year

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The Independent Online

Dina Asher-Smith became the fastest British woman in history last weekend when she broke the national 100m record.

This is quite an achievement. Unfortunately, few outside athletics noticed because not many were told. Newspapers and broadcast outlets mentioned the 19-year-old’s milestone briefly, if at all. Even this newspaper, which prides itself on giving women’s sport relatively good coverage by industry standards (it is one of only two UK papers staffing the start of the Women’s World Cup next month), only included a 15-line report and a small photograph leading a sport in brief column in Monday’s sport supplement.

Not much, one might say, out of 20 pages, but better than most. The poverty of coverage understandably provoked a degree of anger in the female sporting community, with the inevitable suspicion that it was related to most editorial executives being middle-aged men.

That is an issue with some sports coverage, but not this time. The first problem was the timing. With the exception of Sergei Bubka, the great pole-vaulter who appeared to break the world record to order, most athletes are unable to pick when they make history. Which is a shame, because Sunday was a particularly bad time for Asher-Smith to run like the wind.

Also fighting for space were the denouement of the Premier League and the finals of the Football League play-offs, the semi-finals of rugby’s Premiership, a gripping cricket Test and the Monaco Grand Prix. Plus golf’s PGA Championship at Wentworth, the start of French Open tennis, James DeGale winning a world boxing title, a Classic weekend at the Curragh, cycling’s Giro d’Italia, World Superbikes at Donington Park and county cricket. Getting all that into 20 pages last weekend was a Herculean feat by our sports editorial staff.

Did we get the balance right? Probably – there have been no complaints, though some readers may simply have cancelled their order in disgust. I believe Asher-Smith’s record was underplayed not because she was female, but because athletics has slipped into the shadows. The harsh reality is that, outside the big events, most Britons have lost interest. There is a reason Manchester City and West Ham United have been handed public stadiums: athletics alone cannot pay the bills.

This is a pity, for athletics is a great way to engage young people requiring, at the most basic level, even less equipment than football’s jumpers for goalposts. But disillusionment reflects decades of drug-related cheating (cycling, which has similar issues, has the advantage of being fashionable for all manner of reasons including Sir Bradley Wiggins, Lycra and £1,000 commuter bikes).

Quick test. Who holds the men’s British 100m record? It used to be shared by Dwain Chambers who ran 9.87 seconds in 2002 but was stripped of the honour after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs. Which means, remarkably, it is now more than two decades since the legal mark was set, by Linford Christie when winning the world title in 1993 at the age of 33.

Six years later Christie was banned for having excessive nandrolone levels. Though he has always denied taking performance-enhancing drugs, it is not hard to see why people began to lose faith in the sport. The continuing presence of the twice-banned Justin Gatlin at the highest levels of competition only further invites scepticism.

There are exceptions to this lack of interest. Any sport needs stars and rivalries, preferably rivalries involving those stars. Athletics was regularly in the headlines for the right reasons during the Coe-Ovett era and that has been reprised with the heptathlon rivalry between Jessica Ennis-Hill, Katarina Johnson-Thompson and Morgan Lake. An Olympic star, a challenger and a young gun. It is a great combination fully deserving of the coverage of the event in these pages today. It is also, because of the British interest, given far more attention than the men’s decathlon at the same meet despite the Olympic champion and world record holder Ashton Eaton competing.

Partisan interest is one of the factors involved in editorial decisions. While we may occasionally try to give readers what we think they ought to read, mostly for simple economic reasons we try to provide what we think you want to read. Mostly that means football, cricket, rugby, golf and tennis – especially football, justifiably so given the large attendances.

This means sports like athletics have limited coverage while others, with devoted but small followings such as ice hockey and speedway, zero. In the bright new future when we are all internet-only (assuming anyone works out how to make it viable), space will not be a problem, but coverage will still be limited by the presence – or absence – of media. Asher-Smith’s run was at a minor meeting, making details, quotes and photographs hard to come by. If she does it again, on a quiet sporting weekend at a televised meet, and is still ignored, then there is an issue.

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