Athletics has had a lousy 2020. Not that any sport has had a great 12 months, but the absence of a major championships after the postponement of Tokyo 2020, coupled with a severe lack of cash in the World Athletics coffers, has left the sport trailing those that have been able to keep their shows on the road in bubbles for sofa-bound audiences. Shoe wars and drug scandals have hardly helped either. Thankfully, redemption may be but eight months away, if only athletics’ leaders can seize their quadrennial moment when the world drops everything to watch its greatest runners, jumpers and throwers.
It’s now over a year since Eliud Kipchoge broke the two-hour marathon barrier, but the memory of his superbly orchestrated feat on the streets of Vienna eclipses the recollection of any athletics activity in 2020. Back garden pole vault competitions hardly cut the mustard when football was back, Formula One cars were leaving the grid, cricketers were bubbling for matches that stretched well beyond the usual boundaries of the sport’s summer calendar, and the golf and tennis majors were returning to our screens. By the time athletics did manage to get a truncated Diamond League circuit operational again, the moment had passed - not helped by the loss of its usual narrative of a series that builds to a lucrative season finale.
The failure to mimic the COVID-secure environments deployed by other sports is said by insiders to have been a function of resources, pure and simple. World Athletics is not in the dire financial straits that some had feared before it at last published its accounts for the first time this summer, but the International Federation’s balance sheet is nevertheless very skinny when compared to the bodies presiding over other major sports. Without the four-yearly dividend from the IOC after each Olympics, World Athletics would be scuppered - the true legacy of the corrupt Lamine Diack regime. In the absence of a transformative broadcast deal, World Athletics certainly didn’t have the resources to stage a bubbled circuit of meetings this year akin to F1. Public perception of athletics might have been transformed had this happened.
The one-day meets that were staged at the back end of the year did include some stirring competition, but were overshadowed by a tumbling of records that would have been described as truly incredible were it not for our knowledge that athletes were the poster children for shoe companies waging a technology war enabled by World Athletics’ regulations. This is proving one way to sweep away records that have stood since the era of far laxer anti-doping regimens. Once the shoe designers crack the sprints, as they inevitably will, it is likely that only records in the throwing events will prove impervious to the forces of technological advancement.
All of which exercises die-hard athletics purists, but is scarcely important to the mass of casual fans who will tune into the delayed Olympics next year in search of sporting distraction - many of them happy to shell out for the latest shoes that might knock some seconds off their next parkrun time. This is the gamble World Athletics is taking in embracing the needs of the shoe companies, no doubt in fear of the accelerating decline in the funds they are putting into the world’s leading athletes themselves as opposed to the shoes they are sticking on their feet.
This gamble could well pay off, provided World Athletics can persuade the world’s broadcasters not to fill hours of air time in Tokyo with studio discussions about shoe tech. If commentators put an asterisk against every Olympic record set next year then they will be doing the sport a disservice. Better to simply acknowledge that its leaders have decided that a reset of its record book is part of a reboot of the sport. And Tokyo could and should be that reboot, a reminder of all that athletics can be, and all the more welcome for it in this time of the pandemic. Just so long as shadows of failed drugs tests, contested missed tests and returning doping cheats don’t blight the competition in time-dishonoured fashion.
In the United Kingdom, the sport shares these problems, but has more pressing needs of its own. I’ll declare an interest having been chair of UK Athletics (UKA) for a decade until the World Championships in London in 2017, and now just a keen fan. Poor commercial performance over the past two years at a time of revolving leadership doors and infighting between the sport’s governing Council and UKA’s operating Board have hollowed out the governing body’s finances. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the governance battles that continue to rage - The Times last month reporting a punchy letter from senior figures in the sport declaring a "lack of trust" in its leadership - the diminished sporting product is undeniable.
Next summer, Britain’s three days of Diamond League athletics are reduced to a single session in the London Stadium on a Tuesday night when schools have yet to break up for the summer holidays. Hardly the legacy that was envisaged when we hosted the World Championships there only three years ago. And it isn’t just the fans who will suffer. British athletes have sharply reduced opportunities to build their reputations and then monetise them in front of a home audience.
Athletics has always flirted with relegation from the ranks of the major commercial sports into essentially amateur status, albeit with a four-yearly fillip provided by the Olympics. The current retrenchment at UKA could be interpreted as a stripping of the sport back to its amateur roots. One hopes this is a cunningly-planned precursor to a long-term rebuild, presumably centred on a redeveloped Alexander Stadium in Birmingham which is being readied for the 2022 Commonwealth Games. Maybe the sight of sparse crowds in the glorious Stadio Olimpico for Rome’s annual Diamond League meeting has given UKA a glimpse of a possible future in London from which it is recoiling. If so, that would be a huge shame.
Thankfully, Britain’s athletes seem well placed to deliver medals in Tokyo at both the Olympics and Paralympics, providing a favourable foundation from which the home nations can dominate at Birmingham 2022. Much has been written about the trilogy of major events for British athletes that summer - worlds, Commonwealths, Europeans - and the prospect of leading athletes choosing to skip the Games on English soil. In that summer of all summers, I’d remind them that seats for medal winners on the breakfast TV sofas will be most readily available for Commonwealth champions. And given the increasingly harsh financial climate, such profile-building opportunities could be invaluable. They should tailor their competition plans so as to compete in Birmingham.
As the Tokyo Olympics offers World Athletics its shot at rejuvenation, so the Commonwealth Games a year later is UKA’s opportunity. Having spurned the platform created by London 2017, the opportunity afforded by Birmingham 2022 simply must not be squandered.