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Rejuvinating the European Cup

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30 June 2008



Article by Ed Warner as seen in Athletics Weekly magazine





Last weekend was a good time to be a British athletics fan. Congratulations to the Norwich Union Great Britain & NI team: winners of nine of the forty events, the men’s team gold medal and the women’s bronze only two years after relegation from the top division.


In Olympic year, there was always the prospect that the British team would be damned if the did or damned if they didn’t in Annecy. “Yes, but key competitors absent, no Americans or Africans, early season” or “alarming failure with less than two months to Beijing.” I know which of the “inquests” Dave Collins and his performance team would have settled for before the weekend, though.


To me, this European Cup success provides further evidence of the steady improvement in standards across a number of disciplines that has been in train for the past couple of years. Olympic triumphs – whether in Beijing or London – must be built on such foundations.


This, of course, was the last European Cup in the current format. European Athletics  is tackling the problem of declining spectator numbers and TV viewing figures by splicing the men’s and women’s competitions into one, expanding the top division to 12 teams and tinkering with the traditional structures of a number of events, particularly in the field.


The changes are controversial, offending many purists and angering some field athletes who feel their events will become a lottery. If nothing else, European Athletics should be applauded for its bravery. It is taking a risk – it may for example drive down the number of top athletes prepared to take part – but at least it is trying something to tackle the waning public recognition of athletics in Europe.


I fear, however, that no amount of changes to event structures such as these will reverse the current decline. Nor, to my mind, will the development of a few superstars – the clarion call of many observers – of itself do the trick. British rowing, for example, has had such icons for many years, but that doesn’t encourage public interest outside of Olympic regattas.


The answer lies in developing broader and deeper participation in track and field in schools. Children steeped in athletics are much more likely to sustain their interest, even if only from the stands or the sofa, through life. The inherent simplicity of our sport gives it a major advantage in this regard over the likes of rowing.


There is nothing original or gimmicky in this answer, nor is it a quick fix. That’s not to rule out gimmicks – every sport must constantly re-examine its presentation so as to ensure its appeal to the current generation of kids – but they won’t by themselves be sufficient.