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World Championships struggle in bid for centre stage

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David Bond | 15:42 UK time, Friday, 26 August 2011

Everywhere you look in Daegu there is a poster, banner or sign promoting these World Championships. The Koreans are certainly giving the event the hard sell.

Despite that, this is not a city wild with anticipation. Low key would hardly do justice to the build up.

South Korea is not a track-and-field hotbed and even after the 1988 Seoul Olympics the sport failed to take root here (unlike Japan).

Baseball and football are far more popular - I can vouch for that having spent four weeks here during the 2002 World Cup - and it tells you everything that the local organising committee turned down offers from the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) to send their leading ambassadors to the country to promote the event. Even Carl Lewis was told not to bother. The reason? No one would have known who he is.

But the indifference to these championships reflects a deeper problem the sport is battling around the world.

And with a year to go to the London Olympics, it is a problem the sport desperately needs to address.

There is little obvious local interest in the World Championships. Photo: AP

There is little obvious local interest in the World Championships. Photo: AP

Some of this is down to the series of doping scandals which have tarnished the sport's reputation in recent years. But huge crowds still flock to see the Tour de France despite all the drug controversies and cycling seems to be getting more, not less popular.
Without Usain Bolt, the sport would be in desperate trouble and his importance to track and field cannot be overstated.

The fact the 100m has been robbed of the showdown the world wanted to see between Bolt and his Jamaican team mate Asafa Powell has certainly not helped these Championships.

Considering the immense pressure he is under, Bolt seemed completely unfazed by it all when I interviewed him yesterday. He said he understood his responsibility to the sport and just enjoyed racing.

He says he wants to be a legend and that means retaining his World 100m and 200m titles here and then his Olympic titles over the same distances in London next year.
But what would the sport do if he were to then retire? Two sprinters who have run faster than Bolt this year - American Mike Rogers and Steve Mullings of Jamaica - have both failed drugs tests, and Powell seems incapable of delivering when it really counts. The truth is there is no one else quite like Bolt - not only in terms of talent but his remarkable character and charisma.

Britain's athletes can't waste time worrying about the international profile of their sport. They are now in the critical countdown to London 2012.

Just three years ago in Beijing, the prospects for the British team looked extremely bleak after the track and field team won just four medals, even if one of those was Christine Ohuruogu's gold in the 400m.

Organisers knew that even if the host nation won stacks of medals in sports like cycling, rowing and sailing, failure in the marquee sport of athletics would overshadow the Games.

In came Charles Van Commenee in 2009 and even before he had started to shake things up, the team's fortunes seemed to turn the corner with the team winning six medals in the World Championships in Berlin.

The target here is seven and it is clear that this is not only a crucial stepping stone for next summer but the first real chance to assess the tough talking Dutchman.
A successful Olympics on the track for Britain may help reignite an enthusiasm for a sport which used to enjoy a much bigger status.

The UK is a key market for the sport and with London bidding for the 2017 World Championships, Britain also has a vital role to play in helping to restore lustre to track and field's global standing too.


  • Comment number 1.

    The whole ethos around elite athletics does not lend itself to a popular fanbase in my opinion. The majority of athletes will only peak at their best once or maybe for 3 or 4 weeks and many athletes do not seem happy to 'risk losing' by being anything less than 100% fit meaning fans are starved of seeing big rivalries or real competition. There was so much interest in 100m after Usain Bolt at the olympics and world champs but how many times have Powell, Gay and Bolt raced together since - 2 or 3 maybe?

    For many that is athletic's flagship event and they have raced each other 2 or 3 times since. If a top football team only played against it's main rival once every 4 years and then played against division 1 teams every 2 or 3 weeks then perhaps people would loose interest in football as well...I really enjoy athletics but I can't help but think athletes could help the sport out more.

  • Comment number 2.

    I agree entirely with #1, but I dont think the most significant problem is lack of longevity from the most famous athletes, but also the fact that athletics as it is doesnt have the 'purposive' aspect that other sports have. To get good at running, or one of the jumps, or throwing, you have to practice. But how do you coax a desire to practice out of someone with a short attention span, or potential, but cannot be bothered?

    Say for example, cricket has objectives; you bat and bowl and try and beat a score. Rugby, you have two halves and there are so many parts to the game it is impossible to lose focus. Tennis, despite being effectively hitting a ball back and forth can, if you play at the very top, be an ordeal just trying to master the different shots.

    Cycling holds interest because it is as much a strategic sport as any of the above. Leading a sprint train, keeping energy for intermediates, or easing off on sprints to save for the climbs. I do not think that road cycling has been detrimentally affected by drug scandals because firstly, it is by and large very commercial, and the TdF is well promoted, but what about the Vuelta Espana or the Giro d'Italia? In the same way the Olympics is a well-followed flagship, so to the TdF; the World Championships (in athletics or cycling) or lesser Grand Tours will never be followed by as many people as do the premier occasions.

    In running, throwing, jumping, you need to be so motivated to keep practising ONE thing over and over. Unless you get a Usain Bolt or Yelena Isinbayeva or Liu Xiang who do truly exceptional things, like breaking world record after WR, getting medal after medal, or holding WC, Olympic and WRs at the same time, you cannot cultivate interest in a sport, since sport, at its essential heart is leisure.

    Britain follows athletics because we invest so heavily in leisure and we love winners till they become totally dominant and unbeatable. All respect to the Koreans, I doubt that leisure ranks as highly for them as it does to us.

  • Comment number 3.

    Athletics is a global sport but why did Korea get the world champs, apart from some top class marathon runners Korea doesn't have an athletics tradition. I have a friend at work from Daegu who doesn't know much about these championships!

  • Comment number 4.

    The appointment of Van Commene didn't turn around UK Athletics! The athletes that have appeared now were well into development before he started working. Athletics doesn't work in a 2 year cycle it takes years of hard work to grow into a Senior international.

    Why do we keep comparing old generation of athletics to now? The whole sport has changed since then with countries developing into event factories e.g Kenya and Ethiopia with Endurance.

    We have lost out on so many potential athletes to events like Football and Rugby because of the difference in earnings.

    GB athletics is in good shape, get off its back

  • Comment number 5.

    Never mind the Koreans, none of the people I work with socialise with have any idea this event is happening. They talk about football,cricket,F1,Paintball even cycling . No one mentions athletics ,has no idea who,s doing what. Imust confess I have little idea about who are our current crop are. Yet could name brits who competed in TDF and Test team. Just so far off public radar you wonder that if Olympics was all about athletics,we could just sell them to Qatar.

  • Comment number 6.

    It's difficult to explain to younger people now just how popular athletics was in the 1980s. International meetings regularly on prime time TV on BBC1 or ITV during the Summer Months and plenty of coverage on the back pages even the tabloids.

    I understand what Hugh Davis is saying in post#1 but Coe & Ovett never met outside of major champioships & it didn't seem to harm the sport then & in fact hyped up their rivalry even more.

    I think the problem is that regardless of who runs in Diamond League meetings it's just not viewed as important by the general public in the way that championships are & obviously the champs are the main focus for the athletes too.

  • Comment number 7.

    After the wonderful world champs in Berlin 2009, where the crowd was knowledgable and enthusiastic, and had plenty of home success to cheer for, it seems a mistake to bring them to Korea. It's no surprise that there isn't a lot of hype, when it's doubtful that there will be a single Korean in any final. I understand that you try to bring the sport to new markets, but athletics is not footbal, and should concentrate on cementing its precarious position in its base.

  • Comment number 8.

    I guess they want to go widen the sports international profile and Korea like China and Japan and probably India in the future do well in other Olympic sports. Maybe it should have been the host the year after the Olympics and Russia the year before instead of the other year around with Russia having a lot of top class talent in many differient events would have gotten the crowd into the event. I love the sport, because it is so open and that people from loads of differient countries win medals what other Olympic sport has Kenya and Jamaica as world powers?

  • Comment number 9.

    1. There are proportionately less elite-level European athletes than in the 80s heydey so the involvement from the public in Europe is slightly less than it might otherwise be
    2. It is an off-year just before the Olympics - guys like Gay and Powell and even Bolt are saving themselves for 2012 - possibly also why a low-key city like Daegu was given the games
    3. Athletics is the only sport with absolute standards - it's all about the clock or the measuring tape - given that standards have more or less peaked it's getting harder all the time for the public to see a WR - hence the massive buzz around Bolt

  • Comment number 10.

    I've been teaching English in Daegu for the best part of a year. Being a big sports fan, I've been looking forward to the Championships for a while now and I booked my week-long holiday to coincide with them. Speaking to my students and Korean co-teachers, I have first hand experience of the fact the locals aren't "wild with anticipation". The majority simply aren't bothered by it, or see it only from an economical viewpoint.
    However, I have to contrast this with the responses I've had from friends back home who, when I tell them I'll be spending the week at the World Championships, ask "is that some kind of practice Olympics?" or "is that to do with Usain Bolt?". It's just not the kind of event that manages to capture the imagination of many non-athletics fans - in the host city or otherwise.

    With the Koreans successfully bidding for the Winter games in 2018, they must perceive -or be trying to spark- a growing appetite for something other than the staples of baseball and 'soccer'. I hope the cynics are pleasantly surprised and we get a packed stadium all week.

  • Comment number 11.

    Like Chris I have been living and working In Daegu, personally for just over a year now. I can tell you that the posters have been up and the city has been preparing for the event since before i arrived. Another thing i can tell you is that despite the fact that Koreans haven't a clue who the athletes are with the exception of Mr Bolt if there is one thing you can guarantee in this country it is that they are very proud to host international events and will be there waving their flags with the best of them. When i arrived at the train station last week there was a greeting party of more than 30 people all waving Estonian flags and greeting 2 flabbergasted and completely surprised and totally not-famous athletes. I wonder if we could expect this of other traditional athletic hotbeds? Make no mistake to the fourth city of Korea this is a big deal. One of my students said to me this morning he had seen Usain Bolt on the subway. Its something he will never forget, and for those people who never have the luxury to travel outside their country they are exposed for a short time to the feel of a big event-which can be truly special.

  • Comment number 12.

    Lets be candid about this ( speaking as a former competitive athlete )

    1. Athletics is the most international sport . In the modern world this means that it is anti Westen. ( although the West still picks up the bill )

    2.Athletics -especially running ( the most telegenic part of the sport ) is dominated by Africans and the African diaspora. Which is great if you are African or of that diaspora.. however most people ( Africans et al included ) like to see "People Like Us " doing stuff. This maybe is not such an issue for GB where people are more concerned about medal tallies and which has a large number of athletes of African ancestory but is an issue in less ,er, civilized lands

    3. The so called "Technical Events" are traditionally dominated by Eastern Europeans ( although I expect China to soon be a major player ) This strikes many people ( well me anyway ) as a case of countries taking their sporting interests from the Olympic list of events - which is great if you're in favour of a centrally planned lifestyle ( as well as economy ) - but in more relaxed societies citizens decide their sporting interests without reference to the IOC

    4. Drugs .Again more of an issue for people from some countries more than others . GB/UK seems less troubled by a history of doping than other places ( OK OK I can hear you but the UK is always very partial to any claim of victimhood for a socalled act of wrong doing by a member of a "visible minority " and anyway "everyone does it " and "only those without connections get nicked " will always get a good run in the UK . Although to be fair in the UK people generally make a connection between committing an offence and moral behaviour-this way of thinking is by no means universal .
    It is commonly believed that many very eminent athletes ( including youknowwho ) were as doped as those who were ( or rather the Authorities decided would be ) caught (I share this belief )

  • Comment number 13.

    I think I lost interest in the World Championships when the UK stopped producing top sprinters to replace Christie and Regis. At the time they were around, there were also americans of the highest calibre (Lewis, Burrell) breaking records, as well as great rivalries in the 400m too.
    Since the likes of Chambers and Lewis-Francis came along, with zero talent and charisma, it just hasn't been worth switching on the TV for athletics, at least from a british viewpoint.
    Bolt has made athletics watchable again, but with no major rivals racing at Daegu, how will he be pushed to run record times?

  • Comment number 14.

    I woke up this morning aghast to see that there was no athletics on the BBC. I thought because it was the first day they might be showing some later on, but no. Then, to my horror, I saw it was on Channel 4, being presented by some oaf fumbling his words, looking to his notes and clearly not knowing a thing about the sport.

    What is going on?

    Why is athletics not on the BBC? Is this part of some shakedown where yet again the sports viewers get punished? The BBC have myriad ex athletes who turn their expertise to Championships like this, now we see the sport being completely marginalised on commercial TV.

    Has there been any justification for this anywhere, let alone a breaking news piece about the fact that the BBC weren't showing it?

    I'm pretty annoyed by this tbh. We had the Formula 1 news which although disappointing was understandable, but surely this doesn't cost that much?


    The sport has been suffering but remember the public wants what the public get, and when the BBC isn't giving the public this it is crass to complain about the event being a low key affair. You're not even there!

  • Comment number 15.

    A point that has been addressed is the woeful choice of venue. If there is no interest in Korea, there is no point sending the sport there. Atheltics is relatively popular in parts of Europe, Australia. Not really anywhere else. Asia doesn't have a big interest, not really Africa, not America.

    I remember Osaka 4 years ago. It was terrible. Big finals and half empty stadiums. Olympic games are different. Athletics attracts all sorts then. But at the Worlds the IAAF should be concentrating on hotbeds. Berlin and Barcelona were great venues in the last 2 years. Paris would pull in a decent crowd. London will.

  • Comment number 16.

    I would not have known anything about the World Athletic Championships if I had not spent a month in Daegu this summer seeing all the posters and promotions. Korea didn't host this event for Koreans or to promote Korean athletics, they hosted it to promote their country and bring in foreign visitors. And I like the idea. Daegu is a wonderful city full of the friendliest people you could ever hope to meet. The slogan for the event should be "Daegu 2011: Come for the athletics, come back for the people!"

  • Comment number 17.

    I wonder if the IAAF will take into account support & interest in the sport when they award the 2017 World Championships or will they just go with the money men of Qatar?

  • Comment number 18.


    It appears the IAAF wanted the maximum amount of money from the TV rights and Channel 4 outbid the BBC. And yes, a number of people commented on it back in October last year when it was announced, mostly hoping the coverage would be better.

  • Comment number 19.

    Agree with Gavelaa and several others that it is sad that both BBC coverage and the prestige of the sport have seemingly taken a turn for the worse in recent years. I'm a sports fan but apart from Ennis, Idowu and Farah It is hard to name many British athletes and i reckon thats more than a lot of people would know.But as has been said athletics has always struggled to compete with other sports and has really struggled to shake off the negative press that has attached from numerous drug scandals since Ben Johnson.

    However Gavelaa I do have to take issue with your comments on other potential venues and hotbeds.
    "A point that has been addressed is the woeful choice of venue. If there is no interest in Korea, there is no point sending the sport there. Atheltics is relatively popular in parts of Europe, Australia. Not really anywhere else. Asia doesn't have a big interest, not really Africa, not America."
    How can you possibly say that America and Africa and Asia doesn't have a big interest? If you took African and US athletes out I don't think athletics would be at all watchable. Asia has produced a number of distance runners and a very good 110m hurdler. And how are sports supposed to expand if they can't tap the huge potential which may (or may not) exist in this part of the world? Perhaps the IAAF don't care how "passionate" the fans are but want to tap new markets and sell tickets which they will. Also forgetting the venue for a moment what about the quality of the competition? Numerous events at this championship have been devalued by withdrawn or injured athletes so in reality its not such an amazing coup for Daegu to host. Even in traditional European markets do you really think that sports fans would choose athletics over football and other sports in a time of recession? I'm not so sure.

  • Comment number 20.

    This really is a poor example of BBC journalism .... if the BBC had won the rights to broadcast the event, then the tone of this article would be completely different.

    Following on the factually inaccurate article on the proposed Man Utd floatation on the Singapore Stock Market, I would have hoped that DB would have sought to improve his journalistic output.

  • Comment number 21.

    Athletics has a really big issue that none of the above posts really addresses.

    The money is running out and no one knows where the replacement is coming from. Deagu is an attempt to widen the geographic net of athletics and bring in new money. It would appear to be a failure.

    I got sick and tired of the Channel four coverage within an hour this morning as we had no more than four or five minutes coverage followed by 3 minutes of adverts. During the 100 metres heats we often came back from an ad break to see the race literally starting. If I hadn't recognised Dwayne Chambers in the outside lane of Bolt's heat I wouldn't have known who was in the heat. We had no rundown of the competitors and a host who didn't know who his commentators were. I can only imagine how many potential fans the Channel 4 coverage will lose the sport in the UK.

    It was an absolute shambles almost as much as the 400 metre false start fiasco.

    God only knows what will happen to British athletics when the Aviva money stops after the Olympics next year?

  • Comment number 22.

    First of all British Athletics is pretty good shape. This season there been at least 6 British Records, more than I can ever remember in one season.
    In my opinion 90% of British records would get a medal at a global championships (I'll list them if you like). So they are by no means weak marks.
    We have a genuine strength across the board that we haven't seen for many years. We will never do as well as we did in the 80's simply because more countries are producing quality athletes (as is the case in all individual sports). The world has got smaller! The break up of the Soviet Union is a different case, they could only send 3 per event, now you could see 15 athletes come from the same area.
    We currently have 3 world class 400m hurdlers, its what happens in the UK. We had a glut of well publisiced middle distance runners in the 80's and no real sprinting pedigree what so ever. I don't really count Alan Wells. In the 90's we had a glut of sprinters. Look at the depth of 400m running in the late 90's. We could have won all 3 medals this year with our top 3 in 1997. We've done pretty well in triple jump for 15 years. So although we don't directly replace our talent, talent emerges in other areas. There aren't many sports where we constantly have world class talent.
    We'll never dominate because of the size of our talent pool and the amount of other top level sport we play in the uk (more than anyone else in Europe) so I think we punch above our weight.
    What I've never understood is why our womens team has never been a lot stronger. There are only 2 sports in the world where women get equal billing with men (Tennis and Athletics) so where as we lose talented men to Cricket football and Rugby the same can't be said for the girls.
    The US always fill up 3 spaces in every event apart from the throws. I assume this is because all talented US throwers become quarter backs so its not just the UK that has this issue.
    I agree with all the above comments re venue and coverage, Athletics isnt football and needs to concentrate on popular areas. Ch 4 has so far been awful. Track races without Steve Cram just doesn't seem right.

  • Comment number 23.

    It's not only in Korea where athletics sufers from public apathy!! How many people in the UK will be able to name the 400m gold medalist in the men's and woemn's events at the end of the week. 1 in a 100? It is also rife in South America, a continent of 400 million!! How many medals will that continent accumulate in these championships?? Mind you there is very little public funding in the sport in any of those countries although I 'm sure Brazil will address the issue with the 2016 Olympics approaching.

  • Comment number 24.

    Daegu is a stupid place to have the Championships. I live in SE Asia and so Korea is a short flight for me. Tickets were plentiful a few weeks before games - but hotel rooms were gone months in advance. I notice a sparse crowd tonight and that is what the IAAF deserve for holding their showcase in such a backwater.

    As for the general lack of interest with athletics. Why should your average European sportsfan care which of the many US/Caribbean athlete wins a sprint race or which of the Africans wins a distance race? Even if the championships do grab your attention why watch the series of meaningless friendlies otherwise known as the Diamond League?

    The sport organisers need to show more imagination. I have the solution but nobody cares about my opinion.

  • Comment number 25.

    Berlin was an absolute success ,not just because of Usian Bolt ,it was well organised had lots of talking points and from Europes point of view accessable to watch . The latter is not true of the Daegu games .Ok Korea not a hotbed. So look at it from Asias point of view and others within the time zone . Remember there is much interest in Africa Kenya Ethiopia Uganda Sudan Morroco etc . You cannot look at world athletics from merely a UK point of view.
    As far as I know in the UK both Diamond League events in Birmingham and Crystal Palace were sold out with or without Usian Bolt .So dont tell me one man is important for British audiences. I really have no idea worldwide . Perhaps its true .
    Certainly for the media its true I grant you . But lets analyse newspapers for instance .They have diminishing circulation and never have promoted athletics .Far from it .Most were just interested in drug scandals.
    Radio 5 Live ..why anyone would want to listen to athletics or any other sport is beyond me .
    Television is and will be the only successful promoter therefore accesibility is the key throughout the world .


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