Over the past four years, as I have traveled to the UK to see how the British run their sport and their meetings, I have been lucky enough to befriend Ian Stewart. I actually met Mr. Stewart at a Nike Prefontaine meeting some years ago. I found him a bit intimidating at first, after all, he had been one of my true sport heroes ( along with Dave Bedford, Jim Hogan, Ron Clarke, Bob Schul, Ron Daws, George Young, Pre, Jim Ryun ). In the time that I have been fortunate enough to spend with Ian, he has introduced me to some wonderful people, many who share his love of our sport, and many who are at pains to change the sport for the better.
Stewart is an Olympic medalist, European 5k and World Cross Country champion. He has been to the very pinnacle of our sport, and he also took a time as a bike racer. A man who speaks his mind, Stewart, along with his business partners Jon Ridgeon and
Alan Pascoe (through their business FastTrack), control all of the major meets in the UK, as well as the TV rights and marketing rights for those meetings.
What is fascinating to me is how the men, in my limited view, seem to work together. Each has his role-for Stewart, that is managing and orchestrating some of the best and most entertaining track meets I have ever witnessed. They are also, on time, down to the second.
I caught up with Ian in early May, emailing him some questions, as is my modus operandi. Mr. Stewart replied about a week later, with, as usual, some thoughtful comments on our sport, where it is and where it should and could go.
If there is an overwhelming theme of my blog, it is that one must love the sport to change it and that the change needed to take athletics to the level it should be at means that we all must make tiny steps. Those starting steps, those attempts to change our perspectives, to understand someone who does their meeting different than ours is not the enemy, but a potential light at the end of the tunnel.
I ask that you take the interviews that I will be presenting over the next few months in that light. If we agree to disagree, if we have the given that the sport must change to survive and prosper, then we are at a starting point.
At his core, Ian Stewart is a man who loves his sport. He, like most us, is fearful of its demise and also sees that change can take it to unimaginable heights.
I hope you enjoy reading this interview with Mr. Stewart as much as I have enjoyed preparing it…
RBR: Your meetings in the UK are in the midst of a rebranding, from Norwich to Aviva, what can you tell us about the challenges a rebranding brings to your team?
Stewart: This is not as much of a problem as it may first appear as Aviva are the holding company of Norwich Union and have been for some years.We will have more blue in the color ways on signage etc; we are rebranding the event titles. There are now some specific requirements being asked of us as Aviva are an International organization as apposed to Norwich Union being a British operation.
RBR: How many meetings will you put on for Aviva this coming year?
Stewart: The same as before seven events including our National Champs Indoor and Outdoor.
RBR: One of the delights of going to your meetings are the levels of competition. You seem to orchestrate the fields much more precisely than others around the world. For example, in Norwich Birmingham last February, you put on a triathlon, a long jump, hurdles and 400 meters with Kelly Sotherton and Carolina Kluft, which was a crowd pleaser! How do you decide on your fields?
Stewart: I have the best stats guy in the world in Ian Hodge we both meet and talk on a very regular basis and decide who we think is hot at that time; we also bring in our PR guys early in the season to see which athletes work for them on the PR front. I then look at all of the big clashes and contract as many as I can get. I also look at the British athletes that can make an impact on the PR front as we have to fill Stadiums so you have to have local heroes. I think the big thing is to understand that we have to balance between the best in the world and home grown talent. We are not as fortunate as the US in that we have nowhere near as many World or Olympic Champions to work with, so I have to be far more detailed in what I am doing and who I am bringing into the meet. I would love to manage a US meet to see what we could do with it.
RBR I notice that athletes like Lagat, Isinbayeva, Bekele, Wariner are signed for several meetings during the year. When you sign an agreement, what does that athlete have to do in order to fulfill our contract? Press conferences, prior and after? How do you view the role of agents in this world?
Stewart: The athlete and agent has to understand that I only send you a promotional contract which is exactly what is says is: you are paid to promote the meets. Press conferences, photo shoots, one to one interviews with both the electronic media and written press– we try to cover all of the angles but also try to understand that at some periods we have to work around the athletes training schedules especially in Olympic Year.
This is where the agent is of paramount importance. The agent has to get it, most of the agents that we work with know us by now and we have a very good working relationship with them. I also think the agents have come a long way these days and are much better than in the past.
RGR: You support, especially, developing British and American distance athletes, so you have this amazing potpourri of world leaders, world challengers and local heroes and heroines. Is that your plan?
Stewart: My plan has always been to give these kids a start in a world class field that is more of a race than a time trial. I think middle and long distance running, done correctly, are the most technical events in Track and Field. They are the only events where you have time to think on your feet (that is a problem for many people) and you do not have a coach sitting at the side of the track giving you hand signals or other instructions. I think the US is doing a great job in cultivating great young distance runners. They are more than welcome to come over and race in Britain.
RBR: In the July Crystal Palace Meeting, you will go two days and adidas has come on board. The adidas folks told me that they were ecstatic with your six hours of national television over two days of coverage! Will this new meeting be a challenge?
Stewart: The big challenge is to get the balance of TV and the events TV want on which day, (and) to balance (that) with the challenge of filling the stadium for two days. It would be useless if we overload either one of the days. It has to be an all round balanced programme over the two days. So, we have to speak to TV on a regular basis on any event changes that may have an impact on the TV show. Do not forget we are trying to do two things here: a TV show and an in stadium shows so we always have some kind of compromise: together with the fact that the whole thing is live TV, so, we have no room for any mistakes.
RBR: Tell us about the British Olympic Trials? Where, and what format?
Stewart: The trials are in Birmingham 11th-13th July the same format that we always use. It would be impossible for us to follow the USA format we just do not have the depth of athletes in the UK.
RBR: Your tie in with BBC is amazing; would it be possible to bring your programming to US on Public Television here?
Stewart: I think we have the best TV deal and partner in BBC probably in the world of Track and Field we are very fortunate to have this relationship. I think a similar model should work very well in the USA but the problem is that all of the events are controlled by different organizations USA Track and Field does not own any of them or the commercial writes to them as far as I know, so it would be very hard to sell TV a package of events. If I was involved in this area in the USA I would encourage USA Track and Field to look at the events structure and maybe look at the UK model and go down that road as correctly handled this would be a great revenue stream for the sport and also give Athletics shop window to attract more young people into our sport.
RBR: You coached for a bit, do you miss that?
Stewart: This one of my greatest passions in life and also one of the most enjoyable times in athletics I have ever had. I would love to be able to have the time on my hands to commit to coaching young people. There is no greater reward that this. I am very envious of the people who do this most rewarding job. Make me an offer I will be there tomorrow.
RBR: What does the sport of track and field need to do globally to become a real player on the world sports stage?
Stewart: We have clearly as a sport become second tier; the drugs issues that never seem to go away have done almost irreparable damage to our sport, somehow we do not handle this issue very well. We have lost TV sponsors, all kinds of bad PR , the press these days are always looking for the next big piece of bad news.
I think the stand that most of the leading agents and Meet Directors in Europe have now taken is great and should over a period of time help. But the IAAF and other regional governing bodies have to now step up to the plate with a minimum Four Year Bans.
The sport has to be on public TV, not just every four years, (but) all of the time. If it is not, the public do not take us seriously. That should be the goal of every meet director every NGB the IAAF etc.