The time has come for athletics to be brave as a sport and look at the ways it adapts and grows. There’s no doubt that it’s strong and anyone who saw the IAAF World Championships in London, either in the stadium or on television, will agree. At its best it’s untouchable, but there are many challenges. At the IAAF we have to ensure fans understand the rhythm of the season year round, that the Diamond League is a strong brand and that athletics is equipped to succeed in the years ahead and maintain a relevance in the lives of young people especially.
The Diamond League is in no way a broken model, it’s still getting millions of eyeballs and good television ratings, but it could be better. I’m not really sure it’s a league, so we probably need to introduce new things to the format. It worked for the European Cup in football when it became the Champions League. It might upset the purists, but we can’t lose sight of the fact that we are in the entertainment business and it’s a very competitive market when it comes to television and sponsorship money.
We’ve also got to ensure that the top athletes compete in the Diamond League. Some have gone through a whole season without appearing and this doesn’t add brand equity. There has to be a narrative and the feeling that the season builds towards something. Our athletes have to have an incentive to compete, not just for appearance and prize money, but because points won in the season mean something, providing a progressive and incentivised route to the World Championships. Football does that well. When executives of Europe’s top clubs head to Monaco each September for the Champions League draw they are in essence marketing the final and we don’t do that.
We also have to let the sport flower in whatever way we can and so sometimes let the market be the arbiter of athletic tastes. If Diamond League promoters in Scandinavia know they need to build their event around the javelin, because it’s rated in their athletic culture, I certainly don’t have a problem with it. And does it even have to be a stadium experience? We’ve been too wedded to the traditional 400m track layout and many modern or refurbished stadiums can’t accommodate that anymore. What’s wrong with a 200m track, or a city-centre event?
This year I sat with the Italian federation at the European Congress. They say that nothing great is created over a plate of salad and it was probably 1.30 in the morning. We were chatting about pop-up tracks and I suggested putting one in the Colosseum. That’s what I mean about being brave and showcasing our sport in the best ways we can. But I know we can’t make these changes without those moments of early-hours-of-the-morning unease.
Athletics faces many challenges, but with them come massive opportunities and we have to be ready and willing to make the most of them.