Why it's time to coax out that athletic support

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The Independent Online
Last week's Zurich Grand Prix was a model of what an athletics meeting should be. Once the action got underway, there were no longueurs. Every event involved significant competition. Every activity was closely followed by a knowledgeable and boisterous crowd.

What a contrast to the sad effort at Crystal Palace four days earlier. Yes, of course, the Zurich meeting had huge advantages, foremost of which was a budget of $6m (pounds 3.8m), way beyond what was available for the unfortunately named Performance Games.

Few meetings can match the one staged annually in the Swiss capital. But why should Britain be unable to put together something even faintly comparable?

The British Athletic Federation is strapped for cash, and until the Department of Heritage stirs itself to consider its bid for pounds 9.6m of National Lottery money over the next five years, it is likely to remain so.

But the federation is not helping itself with its promotion and structuring of events.

Here is a question. Does anybody find a 150 metres race remotely satisfying? Or indeed a 300 metres race? The programme at Crystal Palace was packed with such oddities.

Where does the hybridisation stop? What about a 130 metres race? Or a 90 metres race? Or an egg and spoon race?

Arbitrary though they may be, the Olympic distances in athletics carry particular histories and meanings. Presumably, the distances contested at the Performance Games were selected with the thought of saving the reputations of weary athletes just a week after the closing of the Olympics.

The effect was diminishing. And on a miserably rainy afternoon - sheer bad luck, that - the event needed every assistance to entertain what must be regarded as the heart and soul of British athletics, the committed core of supporters.

We hear a lot about athletes being focused and professional these days. Professionals should be willing to do a proper job of work for the viewing public, and if that means a few are shown up at less than their sparkling best from time to time, then so be it. Those supporters deserved better.

It was depressing to see Crystal Palace barely one-third full. In theory, in the federation's dreams, the place should have been packed with banner- waving celebrants.

No doubt such a response is easier to generate if there are gold medallists around. Linford Christie and Sally Gunnell received a big welcome in Sheffield after their Olympic victories four years ago.

And yet Britain's Olympic performance in athletics this year was, at the very least, respectable, and not dramatically worse than the last. Two golds, four bronzes in 1992; four silvers, two bronzes in 1996. Scored on the standard basis of three-two-one points for gold-silver-bronze, they are identical. And if Jonathan Edwards's toe had not poked over the board on his last triple jump, their might well have been a gold this time round. The point is that there was sufficient British achievement to generate a better response.

It was instructive to hear Mark Richardson, the 400metres runner, on the subject of promoting the Crystal Palace meeting. He made the point that three million people had stayed up until 2.40am to watch him and his colleagues win the silver in the 400m relay. The latent interest in the sport, he said, was there. It just needed to be drawn out.

So why wasn't it? A couple of slots on Capital Radio failed to do the trick.

The effect was less than thrilling for ITV, whose contract with the sport ends this autumn. There are influential people within ITV who feel that British athletics is very far from making the best of itself. If the contract is renegotiated, it may be at a reduced rate.

The federation are already talking about reducing the number of domestic events. Britain's leading athletes, for instance, have been obliged to follow the Olympics with three domestic meetings in the space of two weeks - at Gateshead today and Sheffield on Sunday. Bonkers.

Less could mean more in terms of quality. But the federation is involved in a vicious circle. When the group led by the present executive chairman, Peter Radford, took over the running of the federation in 1993, there was much talk of moving away from dependence on television revenue to sustain the sport. British athletics had to become more self-reliant.

Three years on, it is as dependent on television money as ever; and there is less of that about. The only big marketing initiative, put forward by the federation's marketing director Barry Snellgrove, has been a doomed and misguided attempt to re-establish betting at athletics venues.

The odds are that today's meeting at Gateshead will offer better entertainment than Crystal Palace: Linford Christie against Donovan Bailey has the unmistakable feel of a real athletic contest.

Let's hope, for everyone's sake, that it does not turn out to be an isolated example.

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