Jim Cowan: Athletics becoming a minority sport – is this the Olympic legacy?

Monday, 25 February 2013
Jim Cowan newI have a lot to be thankful to the sport of athletics for.

As a former athlete I spent many enjoyable years training for and competing in the sport. Later I became a coach and was fortunate to work with many talented athletes. I have made friendships which have endured the years and the miles, I have seen more of the world than I could ever have dreamed of and I learned much about myself as a person.

Athletics gave me a base from which I worked in a number of other sports with many fantastic individuals and great teams. Other than my parents, the sport of track and field athletics contributed more to my being the person I am today than anything else. I am grateful, extremely grateful.

Why do I share this with you?

Because athletics in the United Kingdom is in serious trouble. Forget that "Super Saturday" of last summer; forget the success of Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis and the others. That is the glossy picture that fronts a sport in decline.

Mo Farah of Great Britain London 2012Despite Britain's "Super Saturday" of London 2012, athletics is a sport in decline

The official figures paint a picture far rosier than reality. Sport England's annual Active People Survey reports 2.1 million adults regularly (once per week) taking part in athletics. That is more than one in every 20 people but few other than politicians and those in sport whose jobs depend on these figures believe them anymore. Grass roots athletics certainly doesn't. Even when you allow for the fact that Sport England includes joggers as athletes the figures are barely credible.

But what about the sport the public think of as athletics? What of the sport of Mo and Jessica and the others? What of track and field athletics?

In 2011 the Association of British Athletic Clubs asked world-renowned athletics statistician Rob Whittingham to take an independent look at track and field participation focusing on the key adult competition age of 20 to 34. His findings were that fewer than 2,000 people regularly participated in track and field athletics. That is 0.1 per cent of people participating in what the public might term "real" athletics compared to Sport England's figure for their definition of "athletics".

Jessica Ennis of Great Britain London 2012Great Britain's athletics pin-up girl Jessica Ennis during the London 2012 Games

As a way of picturing 2,000 people, let me put it this way; it is insufficient numbers to field even 182 football or cricket teams (that's fewer than four per English county) and enough for only 133 rugby union teams (fewer than three per English county).

Since 2011 athletics plight has continued. Local, national and international facilities have come under threat of closure from Mansfield to Gateshead and from Cwmbran to Don Valley in Sheffield.

Britain's most successful ever athletics club, Belgrave Harriers, has had to withdraw from the British League because of a shortage of volunteers. For the uninitiated, Belgrave has been athletics equivalent of Manchester United having won 11 National titles in the League's 43-year history. Now their top flight aspirations are over.

This is not the sport of "Super Saturday", this is a sport in transition from major to minor. The sport of my youth, the sport which gave me so much and which has the potential to give much to others has become a minority sport. Strip out the joggers and not much of a sport remains.

Dwain Chambers of Belgrave HarriersBelgrave Harriers boast one of Britain's fastest sprinters Dwain Chambers

Despite the promises of 2005, when London were awarded the Olympics and Paralympics, we have still to see an integrated strategy for the development of sport in this country, one which recognises the full sports development continuum. There has been plenty of talk and lots of initiatives and more than a few bad strategies, but there has been little of quality and now athletics is paying the price.

In the absence of any competent strategy from Department for Culture Media and Sport (DCMS), Sport England or England Athletics, Belgrave Harriers are now going it alone and have developed a strategy which will develop new, non-funding reliant income streams which, given time, can be reinvested in the club to support proper development.

Where once they led on the track, perhaps Belgrave Harriers are now leading in new directions which will benefit a sport in desperate need of leadership if it is to save itself.

If the Olympic legacy is to mean something, if politician's promise to the people of the United Kingdom and of the rest of the world is not to ring hollow that must change and change quickly. Competent, quality strategy is required now, for the bell is ringing for athletics' last lap.

Jim Cowan is a former athlete, coach, event organiser and sports development specialist who is the founder of Cowan Global, a company specialising in consultancy, events and education and training. For more details click here.
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