Geoff Wightman is a popular announcer at athletics meetings and marathons. He is also an exceptional coach. Stuart Weir writes about this man with many talents.
Geoff Wightman could probably walk past you without you recognizing him but the voice is very familiar. He was the stadium announcer at the 2019 World Athletics Championships in Doha and at London 2017. Add in the New York Marathon, the London Marathon, The Anniversary Games and the British Championships and you have probably heard him “inform and explain” (his words) the event. What a difference a Pandemic makes: in 2019 he worked at events 91 days of the year in 11 different countries. This summer, he has worked at the British Championships and the London Marathon. He is also father and coach of Jake Wightman.
He got into announcing by chance. His mother, Nancy, was the club president of Dartford Harriers and one year (1983) their regular event announcer was ill and Geoff’s mother volunteered him. He has been announcing ever since. He has seen a big development from simply giving information to entertainment: “over the years as we become more in competition with other sports, it has to be more about entertainment. So that’s where music comes in and race commentary, making it a more packaged occasion. Diamond Leagues are 90-120 minutes, the same as a football [soccer] match, and are intending to enthuse people in the same way and attract a younger audience”.
Until 2016 he was in full time employment at Scottish Athletics and then UK Athletics so all his announcing in those days was either at weekends or part of annual leave. “As I’ve been free-lance over the last few years, so I’ve been able to take on more. 91 days seems about right. I don’t think I’d want to be doing lots more. And of course, there are only so many weekends”.
Geoff has fond memories of London 2017, about which he has written a book, London Calling: “I guess we’re always skeptical in the run up to these events that the weather is going to ruin them or that the tickets won’t sell. I think the London 2012 Olympics were transformational and showcased us as a country that hosts great events and supports great events. I think that created a category of people who were not sports nuts but were event-goers. They weren’t afraid to go there and shout their heads off. The other masterstroke I thought for the London Para World Championships was to get the school kids in for some morning sessions where ticket sales had been light. Those were some of the most amazing sessions I’ve ever worked at because the kids were going nuts. The kids loved it. The athletes loved it. And it added to the occasion hugely. I think the rest of it was largely a follow-on from London 2012. We did become, especially in London, a nation that goes to and supports sport”.
He also coaches son, Jake, and two other athletes Ian Crowe-Wright and Ben Waterman. “I see them Tuesdays, some Thursdays and Saturdays and on other occasions unless we’re away at a training camp. I set the training online on a Sunday and we have a whatsapp group on how each day’s training went and look at it on Training Peaks. So it’s perhaps 15-20 hours a week but if you’re away on a training camp of course it’s pretty much full time for 2 or 3 weeks”.
In a feature, earlier in the year (https://www.runblogrun.com/2020/07/catching-up-with-jake-wightman.html) Jake said: “Me and my dad have different views on this season. He wants me to get as many races in as possible and try and replicate championship stuff where I’m having one race a couple of days after another. But I don’t really want to waste each opportunity I have to race wise, because there are going to be so few that I’d rather try and get in the best races I can.”
Talking to Geoff seemed an opportunity to get his perspective on disagreements between coach and athlete. “I think that one got resolved with the passage of time,” Geoff told me. “We’d agreed anyway, whether there were championships or not, that he’d focus on his speed. So there would be more 800m races. He can always pretty much get into any 1500m race but sometimes, with only eight lanes, he doesn’t get the choice of 800s. So, he needed to post some quick times so he’s got those options going forward. Where we differed was that I was mapping out a season consisting of perhaps 12-15 races and as we got further into lockdown, he was saying he’d be happy with a 6-7 race season. I wanted to have as many races as possible but he probably realized sooner than I did that it was all going to happen mainly in September. So he was right but it was circumstances that changed. In a situation like that, he’s the one who’s racing so he would probably prevail. In other areas of planning and bigger picture, then my opinion would carry greater weight. But we don’t have too many disagreements or even variations of opinion”.
That led on to the issue of father commentating on son at a championship: “My wife taught at the school Jake went to and I used to get roped into sports days, so I have been announcing his races since he was 13 or 14. When events are being allocated by a producer or director these days, they know that I love to do 800s and 1500s and I am often lucky enough to get one or both of those. I am always conscious that if I ever mess up or show any bias or partiality or appear unprofessional, I wouldn’t get allocated them again. So it’s easier just to play it straight and keep it neutral”. Jake told me, by the way, it does not bother him as he just blocks the noise out!
Finally I asked Geoff for an assessment, from his unique perspective for his assessment of where out track and field is now:
“I think our sport always has the tendency to eat itself or shoot itself in the foot every now and again. I’m very happy with the leadership that we’re getting at the world level. I think Seb and John Ridgeon will take it in the right direction. I am really happy with the work that the Athletics Integrity Unit is doing. I find it sad that athletics only seems to make the headlines is when there is a drugs bust, disqualification or other bad news. But I remember speaking to Brett Clothier, head of the AIU, soon after he had taken over asking ‘what will success looked like? Is it going to be more busts or less because people are getting the message?’ He said there would be more initially as people got caught because of better testing, better intelligence and better technology but then hopefully less, as people learn their lesson and the sport cleans up. I’m afraid we’re still going through the cleanup and airing our dirty laundry which I think is a shame.
“We do need to attract a younger audience and we cannot continue to rely on the Olympics or World Championship to get us to the front of the stage every couple of years. I think there needs to be better Diamond League events, shorter formats and more engagement with athletics. I still think that there is a place in there somewhere for some pilot team formats. Everyone loves championships. They get it. They understand the tension of elimination, medals and ceremonies. The Diamond League hasn’t captured that same tension. With team formats you could have a chance of carrying that through. Like the Athletics World Cup, which was meaningful because everyone’s performance counted with points being scored. It has that narrative going through it – it was just unfortunate that the World Cup had to be in the stadium that month because that was the only month it was available and that it clashed with so many other things. But I don’t think it was the wrong format. There is something still in the offing that may resurface.
“If I could wish for two things it would be more athletics in schools in the UK because I think it has lost its place in engaging people and for the shop window year-round stuff to be more engaging and in front of a TV audience. At the club level in the UK we’re doing OK, it’s just that the numbers from school into clubs aren’t at the level that they were1970s and 1980s but then most things aren’t as they were in the seventies and eighties”.