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There's more than Beijing

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14 January 2008


Column by Ed Warner, UKA Chariman, as seen in Athletics Weekly Magazine


An Olympic year promises more column inches and TV hours for athletics – the quadrennial opportunity for our sport to capture the public’s attention. Thankfully, however, this is not our only time in the limelight. For many of Britain’s Olympic sports, this is their sole opportunity to inhale the oxygen of publicity.


National newspapers have all featured their predictions for the sporting year to come. The Olympics is at or near the top of all lists with athletics suitably prominent. We may be a nation of football fans – at least in the eyes of the sports editors – but there is no doubting the public’s affection for the Games and its odd collection of sports.


For all the doubts about doping, for all the cynicism about the galloping commercialisation of an inherently amateur event, for all the concerns about China – from pollution to its form of government – public interest is likely to be the highest it has been for some time.


Already, pundits are suggesting that Team GB’s hopes rest principally on sports other than athletics; that rowing, cycling and sailing will shoulder the medal table burden. I’m pleased, however, that there is general recognition that Britain’s showing in Osaka last year gives genuine cause for optimism that our athletes will acquit themselves well.


Athletics is almost certainly the most competitive of Olympic sports. Genuine medal challenges come from the broadest range of countries. In part this is a function of its individuality rather than team structure – witness Donald Thomas of the Bahamas winning the high jump at the World Championships – but it is also testament to both the inherent simplicity and enduring appeal of athletics. This is truly a sport for all comers.


I don’t need to be told that we need new British athletic icons to help grow the sport – although that hasn’t stopped many from lining up to tell me just that. However, the breadth and depth of competition must be embraced as one of its key selling points to the public, both as spectators and as a source of future competitors. Home-grown icons may be hard to come by, but this merely enhances their appeal when they emerge.


I’ve no doubt that we are developing future champions and that their emergence will help reinforce athletics in Britain. The Olympics will always be their best opportunity to secure public recognition. Thankfully, though, there are others, whether big city marathons, major championships or grand prix.


Our challenge, and that of the sport worldwide, is to ensure that athletics doesn’t go the way of other Olympic sports; that all our major events resonate with the public. Athletics is the premier Olympic sport, but it is much more than that besides.