At the weekend 30,000 fans crammed into Birmingham’s Alexander Stadium for a Saturday evening session of athletics. On show were British superstars Keely Hodgkinson, Laura Muir and Zharnel Hughes.
But the loudest cheer of the night was for Rosefelo Siosi from the Solomon Islands. The 25-year-old long-distance runner came last in the 5,000m – by over two minutes – but drew a raucous round of applause from the track and field stadium in England’s second city.
It’s not the first time this has happened in England at a multi-national athletics meet either: Australian Patrick Tiernan trailed by over 30 seconds in the 10,000m at the 2017 World Championships in London. Again he was cheered around the oval circuit.
But the six consecutive days of Commonwealth Games action over the last week – consisting of two sold out sessions each day – is quite simply a nightmare for British Athletics and World Athletics going forward.
Because it sets a precedent surrounding what is possible in the world of track and field. There are no excuses anymore.
This year saw the World Athletics Championships thrown into Eugene – aka Niketown – in the United States, a part of the 300m-strong nation with little external pedigree.
Alas, the stadiums weren’t always full and the athletes were left smiling towards empty seats – though few international meets will be as aesthetically unpleasing as the 2019 World Championships in Doha.
The point is this: the quality of sport on show at the Commonwealth Games wasn’t Olympic standard, nor will it ever be, but it presents an opportunity for casual fans to feel like they’re part of the action.
And despite the lack of penetrative marketing the fans turned out. So why don’t they for other athletics events in Britain?
The Diamond League sees swathes of empty seats, the Anniversary Games began to see the same feat before it ceased, and as for the British Championships? They struggle to sell tickets for the Regional Arena in Manchester, despite its smaller 6,500 capacity.
British Athletics yesterday announced that the Diamond League will return to London next July – this will be a litmus test of where the sport truly is: a one-off event with some of the world’s biggest athletes. It’ll put the spotlight on Britain again.
British Athletics needs to market itself with athletes as its pawns, where faces become recognisable like they are for the biggest players in other sports.
Athletics could become tennis, whereby individual athletes are brands in themselves and the events they compete in become so very desirable to be at – with varying crowd sizes, capacities and price points.
There’s no tangible argument here – as there is with football – that too many big events will kill off the sport.
The Commonwealth Games attracted the fringe fans – the maybes – much like horse racing does, and that’s a demographic British and World Athletics need to jump upon.
Sebastian Coe’s tenure at the head of athletics’ world governing body has been a turbulent one. He has faced questions over the closeness of his relationship with Nike and about exactly how far the sport has come in the last seven years.
But it doesn’t matter for the likes of Siosi because he’s on the world stage in front of 30,000 adoring fans.
The Commonwealth Games are a quirk, and there’s little certainty surrounding its future, but while they were here in Britain, track and field was taught the lesson of just what can be done when the wind is blowing in the right direction.