Michael Pavitt
David Owen head and shouldersAnd so, with "due time" plainly elapsed, Sergey Bubka on Wednesday put an end to the waiting and declared his candidacy to succeed Lamine Diack as President of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF).

His announcement brings the mouth-watering prospect of two out-and-out heavyweights of the sport - Bubka and Britain's Sebastian Coe - slugging it out in the run-up to the IAAF Congress in August in Beijing for the right to lead athletics into a new era.

The thing is, the two rivals are not just former athletics superstars; they have taken time to absorb the many and varied arts of effective administration.

For Coe, the prime testing ground was, of course, London 2012, and he graduated summa cum laude.

Bubka, meanwhile, has been steadily building a reputation in the Olympic Movement as a committed and energetic advocate of sport's power to make the world a better place.

If he has so far been denied a moment of such transcendent triumph as Coe's appearance at the 2012 Olympic Closing Ceremony, his work on the IOC Athletes' Commission and as chair of both the Evaluation and Coordination Commissions for the inaugural Youth Olympic Games in Singapore in 2010 should not be underestimated.

All things considered, the six-month-plus campaign represents a golden opportunity for athletics to shrug off recent negative publicity and bask in the glow of what should be a genuinely stimulating contest between the two individuals who are probably best equipped for the job of taking this bedrock Olympic sport boldly and vigorously into what remains of the 21st century.

What a contrast with another sporting election currently unfolding before our astonished gaze.

Athletics legends Seb Coe and Sergey Bubka are going head to head to replace Limine Diack as IAAF President ©AFP/Getty ImagesAthletics legends Seb Coe (left) and Sergey Bubka (right) are going head to head to replace Lamine Diack (centre) as IAAF President ©AFP/Getty Images

In this one, a wider assortment of characters have declared their intention to run.

But, unlike the IAAF, where an ageing President, in place since 1999, has accepted that it is time to make way for new blood, at FIFA, the incumbent, first elected in 1998, fights on, notwithstanding the dreadfully tarnished image of the body he heads in certain parts of the world.

What is more, such is FIFA President Sepp Blatter's enduring grasp on the levers of power that hardly anyone expects a remotely close contest, in spite of the growing list of alternatives.

In the list of prices Tweeted this week by Graham Sharpe, bookmaker William Hill's media relations director, Blatter, 79 in March, was white-hot favourite at an almost unbackable 1/16.

If there is an opposition strategy, it seems to be to weaken the incumbent over time so as to leave him in no doubt that he should not even think about presenting himself yet again in 2019.

So, full marks to athletics for the way the succession is being managed, and C-minus (at best) to football.

And yet: let's pause for a moment to reflect on the two sports' respective positions in the world.

One is almost certainly the biggest such pursuit the planet has ever known, both in terms of the income it generates and its grip on popular imagination.

Sepp Blatter replaced Joao Havelange as FIFA President in 1998 and is odds on favourite to be re-elected ©Bongarts/Getty ImagesSepp Blatter (left) replaced Joao Havelange (right) as FIFA President in 1998 and is odds on favourite to be re-elected ©Bongarts/Getty Images

The other, 26 years on from Seoul, is still mired in doping allegations and afflicted by public scepticism.

One can stop the world for a minute, once every four years, when the Olympic men's 100 metres final is on; the other does so for weeks on end when its flagship tournament, also a quadrennial affair, is in full swing.

But it also, I am confident, animates more water cooler conversations, day in day out, than any other sport and most other topics.

Indeed, with the advent of digital media, even its best-known national club game - the so-called clásico between Barcelona and Real Madrid - shows signs of going global.

Or look at the London 2012 Olympic Stadium, theatre for the exploits of local heroes such as Jess Ennis, Mo Farah and Greg Rutherford, but now being made fit for Premier League football, at great expense, to give it a shot at a viable future.

Look, for that matter, at the sports pages of my daily newspaper, just over 50 per cent of whose acreage today, Thursday, is devoted to a single sport: football.

This newspaper finds room for a solid 500 or so words, maybe more, on Luis Figo, a big-name candidate in the FIFA election who, for all that, stands a vanishingly small chance of winning.

As for Bubka confirming his challenge: 113 words of wire copy – and that includes the headline.

So, conclusion - in spite of its many problems football has got the most important bit right: the product.

Yes, there are still lacunae; yes, it remains hard, even after last year's World Cup, to imagine soccer amounting to more than the third- or fourth-biggest team sport in the United States, the world's economic powerhouse.

Athletics requires more globabl stars like Usain Bolt and street racing could become more common ©AFP/Getty ImagesAthletics requires more globabl stars like Usain Bolt and street racing could become more common ©AFP/Getty Images

But there are fewer and fewer places where a winning national football team won't get a substantial proportion of the country's population glued to their TV sets when they play.

The sport's three or four biggest stars, meanwhile, are global icons on a par with anything Hollywood can offer.

In short, when you consider what football has achieved in spite of the sport's well-publicised governance issues, you realise that athletics needs to change- and preferably before the retirement of its one global megastar, Usain Bolt - or risk a future outside the cultural mainstream, except for that minute every four years when the earth's fastest human being is crowned.

Incidentally, one other area where FIFA scores over the IAAF, and this may surprise you, is financial transparency.

You can actually get a reasonable picture of FIFA's finances from its annual accounts, especially if you look at all four sets published over a World Cup cycle in conjunction with one another.

I was stunned to be told this week that the IAAF has not published its audited accounts beyond its national members since moving from London to Monte Carlo in 1984, three decades ago.

Athletics - and many other sports - could then, it is reasonable to suppose, draw valuable lessons from the global success story that is football.

But some of these lessons in how to expand your public, and how to keep them enthralled, seem at first glance rather surprising.

For one thing, football is remarkably low scoring - indeed, in a small percentage of matches, nobody scores.

This means though that in the majority of games, the outcome is in doubt almost to the end; it also means that anyone can beat anyone else on a given day, even if quality will tell over time.

At 90 minutes plus stoppage time, football matches are also rather long, albeit not by the standard of other professional team sports such as baseball, cricket (in traditional format) or American football (if you count all the intervals when the game is on hold for one reason or another).

Given that one of the most noteworthy sports phenomena of my lifetime has been the spread of mass participation marathons and half-marathons, you wouldn't think that athletics would need lessons in how short is not always best.

And maybe it doesn't; I think it is fair to say though that football's demonstrable ability to keep thousands of people regularly enthralled in events that last about as long as a regulation feature film runs somewhat counter to what appears to be the preferred approach to perking up flagging sports within the Olympic Movement.

While it is not a wholly positive development, one thing that football has done better than any other sport is to transform itself into soap opera.

Hence all those football-themed water cooler conversations: 'What happens next?' is a hugely compelling question when people care about the protagonists.

The Coe vs Ovett rivalry was one of the big draws of athletics for many fans ©Getty ImagesThe Coe vs Ovett rivalry was one of the big draws of athletics for many fans ©Getty Images

It sustains interest, keeping society talking about you in the intervals between periodic doses of sporting action.

If people care about the competitors, they will sit just as raptly through a 10,000m race, or even I daresay a 50km walk, as a once-around-the-track 400m.

One of the most pernicious consequences once a sport develops a reputation, rightly or wrongly, for being drug-addled is that people, unless motivated by blind patriotism, cease to care.

It will be one of the most important tasks of athletics's new top man to rekindle somewhere the sort of passions that animated Coe's track rivalry with Steve Ovett back in the day.

In Britain, and I'm pretty sure well beyond, we were all rooting for one or the other as we went about our everyday business.

The inimitable Bolt has performed wonders to keep his sport on the map since his outrageous accomplishments in Beijing in 2008; he might have done even more had there been a convincing rival to play Ovett to his Coe.

Athletics, more than sports such as football and cycling, is also a prisoner of the stopwatch and the measuring tape.

A big ingredient in the excitement it promised while I was growing up was the possibility of a new world record.

While Bolt, David Rudisha of Kenya and, more recently, the French pole vaulter Renaud Lavillenie have demonstrated that excitement can most certainly still be generated via this route, and while I have not been keeping tally, I have the sense that world records have become rather too scarce in recent times.

Though when they do occur, their rarity makes them even more special, it might be a sensible juncture to look at other ways of injecting a bit of what footballer Thierry Henry would doubtless term va va voom into the sport.

An increased role for street racing using portable tracks laid temporarily in scenic city centres might be one way of achieving this.

With times hard to compare from venue to venue, it might help to throw the spotlight back onto the athletes themselves and their mano a mano racing amid well-known landmarks.

Hey, if the concept took off, you might even eventually spare Olympic organisers the headache of what to do with an 80,000-seat athletics stadium you need for about a month and a subsequent world championship if you are lucky.

No, not even I could see that happening within the time-span of a Coe or Bubka Presidency.

But it gives a flavour of the sort of fresh thinking that this ancient sport could use.

David Owen worked for 20 years for the Financial Times in the United States, Canada, France and the UK. He ended his FT career as sports editor after the 2006 World Cup and is now freelancing, including covering the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the 2010 World Cup and London 2012. Owen's Twitter feed can be accessed here