London Anniversary Games, photo by British Athletics
This is an important piece. As British Athletics is rebuilt, bringing back its legacy in hosting global and elite athletics events gives home athletes a chance to compete, exposes home athletes to global athletes, and builds a fan base with fans on site and fans viewing on BBC. Stuart Weir explains it all.
British Athletics confirms commitment to running elite events
No one thinks it is easy running a sport during a pandemic but there was concern that while other European countries found a way of holding events in 2020 UK did not. From the indoor Grand Prix in Glasgow in February 2020 to the Diamond League in Gateshead in July 2021, no international competitions took place in the UK – except perhaps the vastly scaled down 2020 London Marathon. While one understood the challenges of the pandemic, there was a sneaking feeling the Jo Coates, CEO of UK Athletics from March 2020 to October 2021, did not see elite events as a priority.
The fans at a past London Anniversary Games, photo by British Athletics
Whatever the view of the previous administration, when the new Chair of UK Athletics, Ian Beattie, and Interim Chief Executive, Mark Munro give their first press briefing last week, sharing their vision for athletics in Britain, they could not have been clearer about their commitment to Britain as an event host. The briefing had scarcely been going for one minute when the chair referred to running events as one of his top four priorities. He told the media: “Some of the feedback I got from World Athletics and European Athletics is that they would like to see us regain our place of being a bigger player on that stage. And I’d think we’d like to be. We have organized some really strong events in the past and I’m keen that we play a role in doing that – and I think it raises the profile of our athletes and of our sport in general. And so we’re going to spend time on that and on what an event strategy for the UK should look like – what events we should be running and what we should be taking part in”.
Interim CEO, Mark Munro, affirmed his commitment to hosting Diamond Leagues etc: “Events are very much the shop window for the sport. Again we are very keen that we have the right events. 2022 is a very busy calendar and it’s a freak year in that respect. We need to be clear on what is our event strategy for the next three, four years and beyond. Ian and I were in Lausanne hearing European Athletics and World Athletics talking about the expansion of the continental series and cross-country world tour. So it’s important to be very clear about what UK Athletics is attempting to deliver for the athletes as well as showcase events for the sport”.
If they put on a major meeting in the UK, they will come, photo by Stuart Weir
Prior to the Pandemic, Britain hosted two Diamond Leagues, Birmingham and London but both were cancelled in 2020. In 2021 the Birmingham event was not in the programme and the Anniversary Games, normally staged in London, was replaced by a Diamond League in Gateshead. At short notice, Gateshead also hosted a replacement for the Rabat Diamond League, when it would not take place in Morocco.
The deal with the London Legacy Development Agency, which manages the London Stadium (the 2012 Olympic stadium) is that the stadium, which is home to Premier League football (soccer) club West Ham United is available for athletics in July. But with the World Championships taking place in July 2022, immediately followed by the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, England, there is no window of opportunity for a 2020 London Anniversary Games.
Shelly Ann Fraser Pryce, one of the great athletic stars drawn to the British elite meetings, photo by British Athletics
However, Munro could not have been clearer about the importance of the London Anniversary Games, saying: “We want to be in the London stadium in 2023 and 2024. That’s the plans we have the moment. We definitely want to be in there”. It was confirmed that they had a date in the diary to meet the London Legacy Development Agency. Munro added, with a statement that with please many in the sport, “I would love to get to a place where UK athletes have 4 or 5 opportunities to score really good world ranking points in the UK, before they have to travel abroad and that’s a component part of our philosophy going forward for athletes”. Similarly, the new leaders spoke of their strong desire to get athletics back on BBC TV and said that they were seeking to set up a meeting with the broadcaster. Munro made it very personal: “I think we’ve all probably grown up watching athletics on the BBC. For us it’s a shop window for the sport. We are very keen, if we can find a way forward, to continue working in partnership with BBC. Hopefully we can get athletics back on BBC. We will have to have those conversations over the coming weeks and months and see where we get to”.
Women’s 200m, London Anniversary Games, photo by British Athletics
Another example that confirmed that the speakers were men from within the sport was the throw-away lines at several places in the briefing about the breadth of the sport like: “what does it look like a cross country? What does it look for other off-track events?…we’re more than track and field”.
A fundamental criticism of the previous CEO and Performance Director was that they never quite “got” the sport, in contrast listening to the new leadership is refreshing.