What is wrong with athletics? On the surface it doesn’t seem to be a question many are asking but within track and field it’s at the forefront of minds.
Despite the quality of athletes remaining at historically high levels, the need and desire from fans to see them appears to be dwindling.
Poor attendances at the World Championships in Eugene last year, the refusal of the BBC to renew their broadcast deal with UK Athletics, and UKA themselves reportedly just months from potential bankruptcy are all part of the discussion.
Track and Field on the decline?
It is a sorry state of affairs for track and field in the United Kingdom given how popular athletics was at the Commonwealth Games in 2022 and the planned return of the Diamond League to London this year.
So what is going wrong with the sport?
As a spectacle, it is too long and too repetitive. It is exciting for a couple of minutes per day because Usain Bolt or Athing Mu or Caster Semenya or Armand Duplantis are only on the track or in the field for small percentages of any day’s schedule.
Four-time Olympic gold medalist Michael Johnson has been vocal in his criticism of the stagnation of track and field of late.
“If you were to design a sport for success in today’s sports market, it would look nothing like today’s track,” he said recently on social media.
“Track must be reimagined for today’s sport and entertainment market. In my opinion championship track (Olympics, Worlds, etc.) needs very little change if any, so I’m going to focus on professional track and field.
“Developing professional track is not the role of federations and they are not equipped for the job. Professional track must be developed by a private commercial entity focused on profitability.”
Athletics gets Hollywood treatment?
So change is needed in track and field to ensure the sport is able to compete with rivals on the world stage – both aesthetically and commercially.
Yes, the 100m dash at the Olympic games remains an iconic 10 seconds of action, but for how long?
Some suggest the sport should become more like horse racing, whereby there are fewer races per day but with increased quality.
Others have suggested that simply making the prize money genuinely life-changing could do the trick.
It appears as if UKA’s solution involves – as it did with the Six Nations rugby – a camera crew and a Netflix-style documentary to solve its financial woes.
The issue with a reliance on that, however, is that faced by tennis doc Break Point: it could be boring.
Athletics is in a precarious position. It is a sport built on its history, contested in some form or another for thousands of years, and yet it is just three months from potential extinction in the UK – a country that has produced the likes of Linford Christie, Paula Radcliffe and Mo Farah.
If lights, camera and action can save British athletics, then great, but the sport increasingly looks to be edging towards its final wrap if things don’t start getting radical.