Tom Degun: Huge potential, but IPC Diamond League-style athletics series could prove tough sell

Thursday, 17 January 2013
Tom Degun ITG2So the cat is out the bag...sort of.

No sooner had reports emerged of a plan for the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) to create a Diamond League-style athletics series for the world's top disabled track and field stars than they were quickly cooled by the world governing body.

"Following the success of London 2012, IPC Athletics is looking into how it can stage a number of high profile meetings to capitalise on increasing global interest and to create more competition opportunities for elite athletes," said a statement from the IPC director of communications Craig Spence.

"However, this project is still very much in its infancy; absolutely nothing is agreed nor signed. At the moment we have a strong proposal and are having discussions with interested parties. To read that everything was agreed and signed in some media was a big surprise for everyone here at the global governing body of the sport.

"In fact you could say some people are jumping the gun."

Despite implying that we should proceed with caution on this issue, the IPC still made it clear that "high profile meetings" are definitely in the pipeline either this year or next.

If the reports are to be believed then what is planned is a global series of meetings in the style of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) Diamond League that showcases the world's leading able-bodied athletes, such as Usain Bolt.
 
usain bolt diamondThe IAAF Diamond League has proved hugely successful largely thanks to the participation of stars such as Jamaican sprint king Usain Bolt

It makes obvious sense for the IPC to look to capitalise on the success of London 2012 with a plan of this nature but in looking at it seriously we must be clear - London 2012 was no ordinary competition.

Sell-out 80,000 crowds at the Olympic Stadium for virtually every Paralympic athletics session was truly something spectacular to behold and for all of us sitting there in the magnificent venue, it really was truly breath-taking.

But from a hardened, cynical marketing point of view, Paralympic athletics cannot attract these sorts of crowds globally on a regular basis.

Just over a year before the Paralympic Games got underway, I was in Christchurch, New Zealand, for the 2011 IPC World Athletics Championships. That event took place at the intimate Queen Elizabeth II Park Stadium, which has since had to be demolished since due to the terrible earthquake that hit the city shortly after the competition.

There were just 25,000 seats at the venue but to be honest, only crowds of around 1,000 or so per day were turning up to see the action. This was even the case for the blue-ribbon 100 metre T43/44 final. That was a race featuring South Africa's Oscar Pistorius, America's Jerome Singleton and Britain's Jonnie Peacock, the same protagonists who lit up the Olympic Stadium and made 80,000 gasp in astonishment. But in Christchurch, there was little more than a light ripple of applause as Singleton dramatically beat Pistorius with an epic dive in one of the greatest races in the history of the event.
 
oscae pistorius in christchurchThe 2011 IPC World Athletics Championships were sparsely attended despite the likes of Oscar Pistorius being in action

The same is true of the annual BT Paralympic World Cup in Manchester, which I have attended for several years now. The competition is undoubtedly superb, and the wheelchair basketball matches are a particular fan-favourite. But the athletics event does lose just a little with huge rows of empty seats. This given the fact that many school children are usually shipped into the event free of charge.

This isn't to say the plan couldn't work.

What it needs mostly to succeed are the big stars turning up regularly. In the past, I've heard people call the Paralympics the "Oscar-show" in relation to Pistorius.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Take a look at the able-bodied side and see Usain Bolt. He is the heart of athletics right now and if you take him away, you leave a major, major void in the sport. The same, to a degree, could be said of Lionel Messi in football, LeBron James in basketball or Floyd Mayweather in boxing. Sports do need their one superstar to be their global ambassador.

But with Pistorius in this new event, you also need Peacock, who appears to be emerging as the South Africa's heir apparent for the title of poster boy of the Paralympics. In addition, you need British wheelchair racing star Dave Weir, his Australian rival Kurt Fearnley, Ireland's visually impaired sprint star Jason Smyth; and you need them all competing regularly.

Jonnie PEThe regular participation of major Paralympic stars such as Jonnie Peacock will be crucial for the IPC Diamond League-style athletics series to be a success

Undoubtedly clever marketing teams will be working behind the scenes to make this a success, even if it isn't and instant success.

But although I would love to be proved wrong, this won't be the London 2012 Paralympic Games II.

Last summer's Paralympics was unique, special and a privilege for all of us who were there to attend. But the sad truth is that it was so unbelievably brilliant that it will not be replicated for a long, long time.

Tom Degun is a reporter for insidethegames. To follow him on Twitter click here.
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