Over the years, the sport of athletics has provided both sports fans and the general public with a plethora of sublime spectacles and dramatic competition. Take for instance, the great American athlete Jesse Owens, who won four Gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics: enough of a feat in itself without accounting for the racial prejudice that hung over the games held in Nazi Germany.
More recently, the seemingly inhuman talents of the mighty Usain Bolt reverberated around the globe after his double world-record breaking performance at the 2008 Beijing Games. Athletics provides spectators with the chance to see the human race at its most graceful, powerful and energetic. Put simply, athletics is one of the most ‘human’ of sports; away from all of the pomp and showboating it is basically a test of human strength, endurance and the will to win. So why is it then that a sport so intrinsically linked with human nature has such a poor status in the U.K?
A common worry is the sports’ struggle in attracting talented young athletes who excel in a number of sports. There is great competition for these physically blessed young individuals from the more ‘mainstream’ and popular sports such as football and rugby union, with the latter often winning when it comes to a decision. One reason for this may be the apparent wealth that these sports provide, sportspeople who make the grade in such sports are guaranteed a regular wage whereas in athletics only a tiny minority receive lottery funding, with the remainder of their income coming from competition fees and if they are lucky enough, sponsorship. Furthermore, many young footballers or rugby players are integrated into a club community at a very young age and so never have the opportunity to attend school athletic competitions or to join local clubs.
Another factor is the common assumption that athletics is a boring sport. Obviously, this is completely misguided; one only has to watch the excitement of a closely contested relay race to understand the thrill of the chase. However, it is true that many local athletics competitions are abound with spectators who simply do not want to be there, who have only turned up to see their child race. This kind of behaviour doesn’t occur at football matches or rugby games, you can often find crowds of screaming spectators (not always a good thing it must be said, but at least it shows some passion). This I feel, can be attributed to the lack of community spirit encouraged in such a solitary sport compared to the close-knit togetherness often experienced at football or rugby clubs.
Whatever your opinion on athletics as a sport, it is undeniable that in the U.K it struggles to attract the communal outpourings of support that other sports do and this could be why Team GB struggles on the track. A prime example of this is a comparison of spectator numbers at the respective school athletic competitions in the U.K and Jamaica. The ‘champs’ as the national school championships are known in Jamaica regularly attract up to 30,000 spectators and the event is shown live on TV around the country, with an estimated 1.2 million viewers tuning in. Compare this to the crowd of less than 4,000 that attended last year’s English schools championships and the difference in status is suddenly very clear.
However, it is not all doom and gloom, slowly but surely, athletics in the U.K and the world is undergoing a dynamic transformation. The exploits of talented performers like Bolt have begun to get the world excited about athletics again and the ever nearing face of London 2012 may yet act as a catalyst for greater participation and status for athletics in the U.K. It will take time but the sport perhaps may be destined for a brighter future, where it receives the respect and status it deserves.