Athletics must learn lessons from Formula One and get on track with new audience

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·5-min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
<span>Photograph: Ryan Pierse/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

At the start of another sporting weekend dominated by football Maro Itoje gave an interview which sounded like a cri de coeur. Rugby, the England flanker warned, needed to do more to grow its game, to market itself better against more media‑savvy sports and to engage with those outside its “stereotypical” world. “Rugby is very good at speaking to its own market, at preaching to the choir,” he told the Mirror. “There’s an awful lot of room for improvement. There’s no way you can tell me Formula One is more exciting than rugby. Yet it’s definitely packaged better.”

But rugby is far from the only sport caught between a hardcore fanbase and potential new audiences, the comfortable and the uncertain, unsure whether to stick or twist. Athletics and racing are, too. Meanwhile they and others cast envious eyes at F1, which has catapulted itself into the lucrative US market and elsewhere in the blink of an eye.

Related: Dina Asher-Smith urges UKA to stick with London amid exit reports

I thought of Itoje’s words on Saturday while part of a raucous crowd watching the Night of the 10,000m PBs on Hampstead Heath, a very unusual day of athletics culminating in women’s and men’s races which doubled as qualifiers for the World Athletics Championships in July. When the organiser, Ben Pochee, came up with the idea nine years ago, barely 100 people came to watch. But there were more like 5,000 there on Saturday night, nursing beers and eating burgers, and – unlike at other meetings – allowed in the infield and on lane eight of the track.

One British athlete, Melissa Courtney-Bryant, described the atmosphere as “insane”, adding: “I’ve never raced in anything like it.” Another, Team GB’s Tokyo Olympics marathon star, Chris Thompson, equated it to being at the darts and admitted it was cool he was able to exchange the odd word with spectators. Meanwhile the Olympic pole vault bronze medallist Holly Bradshaw reckoned that, if the UK hosted more such meetings, we would get to see top GB athletes competing more often.

Also watching on was track and field’s original hellraiser, Dave Bedford, still instantly recognisable by the Zapata moustache he sported when breaking the 10,000m world record nearly 50 years ago. “This could be the future of the sport,” he said. “What Ben Pochee has done is incredible, but you could do it with every event. Imagine watching some of the best 100m or 200m runners up close, or pole vaulters clearing the height of a double-decker bus from a few metres away?”

There was something else that Bedford wanted to stress. Athletes themselves also have to be willing to show more of their unvarnished personalities, for better and for worse, and to engage with the media. “I liked the Guardian’s John Rodda and also trusted him not to turn me over,” he said. “So whenever he called me I always picked up the phone.”

Bedford’s legendary attitude on and off the track made him so well known that, 50 years ago this summer, he made the Guardian’s front page when he famously shot at the race walker Paul Nihill with an air rifle in St Moritz while training for the Munich Olympics.

Rodda wrote at the time: “Nihill said he was standing on the balcony watching Bedford practise when suddenly Bedford swung round and pointed the rifle in Nihill’s direction.” Nihill explained: “I instinctively moved back, heard the shot and had just got behind the glass which divides my balcony from the next one.” Rodda was also able to get the other side of the story. “Bedford regarded the incident lightly when I spoke to him,” he wrote, “and said he was not aiming at Nihill but at the balcony next door.”

Dave Bedford (No 1) on his way to breaking the 10,000m world record in 1973
Hotshot Dave Bedford (No 1) on his way to breaking the 10,000m world record in 1973. Photograph: PA

Of course we live in different times. No one is advocating athletes take literal potshots at each other. But there are certain fundamentals that remain timeless. Sport thrives on narrative, rivalries and personalities. It also needs to adapt with times and trends. Yet too often its gatekeepers are resistant to change, suspicious of outsiders and anyone who isn’t a pure cheerleader.

I experienced this after tweeting that the club athlete Ellis Cross had outsprinted Mo Farah at the Vitality London 10,000 – before suggesting Farah’s career at elite level was surely finished. It made for a cracking story, with Britain’s most successful Olympian being beaten by someone known only by the most diehard of fans. However, some took a different view, including a British Olympian who responded on Twitter. “Sad journalism! Mo was magnanimous in defeat, as Ellis was in winning. Shame journalism can’t be more positive or progressive than this. Get to know the sport better!”

What the respondent did not perhaps realise was that my tweet was purely factual. Cross had proudly described himself as a club runner after crossing the line, explaining he had even had to pay his £37 entry fee to compete, while Farah indicated his career as a track runner was probably over, too. Yet it still created a minor athletics culture war over what, exactly, constituted an elite athlete. The bigger picture, surely, was that it gave the sport a rare appearance on the back pages and on national TV, while giving the likeable Cross a deserved day in the sun. Yet a small minority appeared desperate to take offence on his behalf.

Cross, incidentally, was racing on Saturday – although sadly he had to drop out due to stomach cramps. But he, too, had enjoyed the experience. “This is the best race in the calendar,” he told me. “There’s something special in the air.” The challenge for athletics, now, is to bottle this magic – and spread it.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting