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13 Jul Pathetic Diamond League turnout a symptom of BA’s two-day vanity project

Article by James Fairbourn

“I’m so glad to hear that KJT has fallen in love with this stadium” beamed Gabby Logan with all the awkwardness of a grandparent trying to appear ‘cool’ by using a teenager’s nickname, “because I am sure that the crowd will be falling in love with her in a few weeks”. Quite so, but I do hope that more people turn up for the Commonwealth Games than the literal handful of people who were being passed off as a ‘crowd’ at Hampden Park this weekend.

Indeed, clearly under strict instructions not to draw attention to the mass of empty seats (I actually think more people attended my Year 3 Sports Day), this was one of very few mentions of the mystic ‘crowd factor’ that usually dogs BBC coverage. Even Phil Jones – always ready with his stock of questions about how ‘knowledgeable’ the British spectators are – limited himself to questions about ‘the stadium’. Readers who have not had a chance to watch the coverage will be relieved to know that Will Sharman, ‘KJT’ & Sally Pearson all signed it off as ready for the Commonwealth Games in a couple of weeks. Phew.

Unfortunately, the sparse crowd is a symptom of British Athletics’ bizarre insistence that the usually short and snappy Diamond League program must be spread over two days on these shores. The Golden League (a pre-cursor to the upgraded ‘Diamond’ status it now holds) was brought about in order to engage the general public in what can often be long, drawn out affairs that are difficult to follow. Watch a meeting in Lausanne on British Eurosport and you are treated to two hours of virtually non-stop action intertwined by short commercial breaks. Watch a meeting in Glasgow on the BBC and you are met with excruciating ‘chats’ (complete with empty coffee cups and bemused bystanders) between Phil Jones, Jodie Williams and a visibly squirming Alison Felix. Felix – perhaps mindful that a spot on Celebrity Masterchef is always a possibility with this broadcaster – managed to wisely tell young Miss Williams that the sport was ‘a journey’. Gosh – she’ll be telling her that the sport ‘means everything’ next.

At one stage, Gabby Logan became distracted from admiring Tiffany Porter’s nail varnish by a roar from the 50 or so people watching the high jump and promised that we would be able to watch that event later. Quite why were unable to watch it now rather than see Paula Radcliffe shuffle awkwardly from one foot to the other whilst Denise Lewis spoke about how excited she was is beyond the wit of man.

It is true that athletics is always a sport that relies on the stars turning out in order to draw in the crowds. And it is also true that the Diamond League has suffered everywhere this year owing to the absence of Usain Bolt – the Rome crowd was down by nearly 35,000 on last year. But for all their public funding and pathetic attempts to ‘inspire’ the next generation, British Athletics’ arrogant belief that we are in some way different to all this successful ‘new age’ nonsense underlines the fact that the Olympics has done little to engage the public with the sport two years down the line.

It would be a little unfair to compare the attendance in Glasgow to the mass influx of cycling enthusiasts (many of whom new to the sport in the past couple of years) to Yorkshire to watch the Tour de France last weekend – Le Tour’s visit to Yorkshire was a one-off. However, it is true to say that British Cycling have embraced the fortunate legacy handed to them by the Olympics and recent success at the Tour far better than their Track and Field counterparts could even dream of. Tickets for the much promoted ‘Anniversary Games’ (no longer being held in the Olympic Stadium) have sold dismally thus confirming that last year people were more interested in just going to the Olympic Stadium than watching the athletics. Lord Coe will hope that they are still as interested come 2017, otherwise his ludicrous pledge that the World Championships will be ‘full for every single session’ may look a little silly.

The BBC could also take a long hard look at the way the Tour de France is covered on (whisper it) ITV. Both the live coverage and the exceptional nightly highlights package put together for ITV 4 captures the race perfectly. There isn’t the utter obsession with the British performances and a handful of other stars on show that the public may have heard of. Crucially, this coverage is dictated by the most important thing – the actual sport people have tuned into see. To be fair to the BBC, the spreading out of what is at most three hours of athletics into a two-day event does leave vast chasms of nothingness in which pundits are forced to say the same thing over and over again. What is unforgivable, however, is their abject failure to really promote the success stories bubbling up in British athletics (e.g. men’s 1500m; women’s 800m), opting instead to hear why Yohan Blake was getting paid to race this weekend but not able to return for the Commonwealths and Phil Jones’ increasingly dire questioning about the stadium and track surface. The coverage woefully failed a meeting that – in amongst all the space – actually produced some half decent athletics.

The enormous British Athletics banners that covered the oceans of empty seats that cameramen desperately tried to ignore did little to hide the embarrassment – but it did remind everyone exactly where the blame for it lies. It’s time British Athletics sorted themselves out and got in line with the rest of the sport.

  • disqus_DSSX4XQg3j

    Superb article, James.