Help, my sport is dying.

Maybe I am a pessimist, but I strongly get the impression that track and field is in big trouble. “ The mother of all sports” is on the way out. I have spent 30 years in this sport and have experienced the decline in popularity, the empty seats in the stadiums, the competitions that disappear from the calendar, the withdrawal of main sponsors, and the decreasing numbers of track athlete’s participation in national championships.
Athletics however is big, like a dinosaur, so it’s downfall is slow, but steady.

A few possible reasons for this downfall are:
It’s a long-term sports from the moment you pick up a shot, it’s 10 years before you become a champion, if you ever will be, since the sports is global and old and the long-term evolution led to an extremely high level of competition. Overnight success is really exceptional. But nowadays we want instant success and immediate results. Long-term goals and a vision that comes with it are things from the past.

There are many other new, exciting and more interesting sports like team sports, there is always a fun factors , no matter how low the level. Playing soccer with your friends in the park, you can do that for hours and in the end you forget the score. But very few people do shot put of long-jump for the intrinsic fun of it. Fun in athletics is pretty much related to performance, not only relative to others, throwing or jumping further, or running faster, but also to your own performance. Try and see the fun of having no measurable improvement year after year, especially when you are young. (Master athletes can and have to deal with that). Track and field is one of the classic Olympic sports, like weightlifting, gymnastics, swimming, equestrian, etc. And many new competing sports have surfaced the last decades, like wind-surfing, mountain biking, snowboarding, drawing younger athletes And also soccer has become globally popular, attracting many potential good athletes.

Athletics also has always been misused as political instrument , since it consists of many sports, so many medals can be won. The medal count makes it interesting for increasing the medal score at the Olympics to increase national pride, for what that is worth.

And athletics has been misused as a gigantic money-printing machine for e.g. the IAAF and the IOC. Unfortunately a lot of that money ended up in the deep pockets of the leaders, managers and officials of these organization themselves, They were supposed to represent the athletes and to guard their rights and shares of that financial interest , but the harsh reality is that they often only took care of their own interests.

The last couple of months, the general public became very much aware that the these so-called guardians of ethics, norms, values, fair-play, etc. are in some cases no more than ordinary thieves, cheaters, and liars. One of the most cynical recent events was the staging of the first World Summit of Ethics in Sports, September 19, 2014, at the Head Quarters of FIFA, with a welcome message of Mr. Sepp Blatter. I mean, can it get more cynical than that?

In recent days a second TV-documentary of the Germany TV channel ARD by Hajo Seppelt, who in the first broadcast exposed the relationship between doping, the Russian Track and Field Federation and the IAAF, now focused on the same relationship in Kenia, also exposing the transfer of enormous sums of money coming from Nike, almost straight into the personal pockets of the board members of the Athletics Kenya. He also got his hands on the database of IAAF blood tests, showing that many athletes had abnormal blood values, under which many world class athletes. which immediately are regarded as being suspect by ignorant journalists and the general public.

The IAAF is not even able to secure the private and confidential data of its athletes as legally requested. I bet you also would not like your medical data e.g. blood tests, available to the general public.

Now, logic gives us three options.
Either, athletes tested positive indeed, but were not penalized, that is. their positive tests were kept under the table or, as the first broadcast showed, bought off by athletes who had to pay a enormous sum to officials of their federation and the IAAF, for their positive tests to disappear. Which means the doping system is thoroughly corrupt.

Or: despite the enormous amount of money and effort spent on doping-test sand anti-doping organizations, it all was wasted money since the many suspected tests were not adequate enough to lead to penalties. Which comes down to: the anti-doping-system is incompetent and incapable to solve the issue, contrary to what they state and what they get paid for.

Or: the abnormal blood test were not the result of doping, since genetic abnormalities, diseases or altitude training and may have led to these results. Which means that the doping problem in track and field is grossly exaggerated.

But unfortunately the damage has been done, more that every the general public and the sponsors will look upon athletics as a systematically doping-riddled sports. Will all of this help to “clean up” the sport? Absolutely because less kids and their parents will be inclined to start participating in athletics, an less participants means less drug use in absolute sense. It’s like having a mouse in your house, you can get rid of it by burning your house down: problem solved.

Somehow, for the sake of track and field , I hope he mother of all sports only will suffer from a temporary decline in popularity, but will survive the crisis after drastic changes have taken place at many levels. This will take some time and history teaches us that the chance of this happening is very slim.

Too bad for a wonderful sport.

About Henk Kraaijenhof

My name is Henk Kraaijenhof and I started this blog as a random collection of concepts, ideas, stories and events that are important or interesting to me in my work as an international performance consultant in a wide range of fields, and sometimes outside of my work. I will try to post a new entry every 3-4 days. Feel free to comment if you like.
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4 Responses to Help, my sport is dying.

  1. Martijn de Lange says:

    Another appropriate metaphor for the sport can be found in Richard Moore’s The Bolt Supremacy which came out last month:
    “But the success of Jamaica says something about the state of athletics, too. Its blue riband status at the Olympic Games gives it a veneer that is misleading. For two weeks every four years, athletics has a mass audience; the rest of the time it is the Grand Budapest Hotel of international sport – with its magnificent facade, it looks impressive and imposing, but inside are creaking floorboards, threadbare furniture and a sense of faded grandeur. It belongs to a different time.”

  2. Lorne Morrow says:

    I think the death you observe is value-based. Pursuing excellence is no longer valued. I believe that all sport is impacted by it. Certain high-profile sports – football, MLB, NFL, NBA – are largely associated with branding & betting which continue to fuel their success.

    School physical education programs have been dumbed down to “participation.” If you get an A+ for showing up every day what is the message?

    Look at mass participation in marathons, gran fondos, ultra-endurance running and Ironman. How can a person who takes 5 hours & 30 minutes to cover 42.2 kilometres genuinely think of themself as a marathoner? Why have all of these events imposed cut-offs rather than appropriate qualifying standards?

    Because they don’t care about show-casing excellence. They want to make more money.

    With 7 billion of us on the planet there is a whole bunch of stupid walking around. The majority does not recognize or value excellence. That majority only recognizes drama or imbalances. They love the trash talking. They can tell who won a boxing match when there is a knock-out. They never know who should have won based on points.

    Decades ago, on the Montreal velodrome, I watched a local boy beat a pro in the sprint during a madison. The crowd went gaga! In that same evening’s program – at different periods – both riders attempted their best flying 200 metre sprint. The amateur was nearly 1.5 seconds slower than the pro who – with his effort – set a record for that distance on that velodrome that stood for quite a while.

    Most of the crowd never pieced together that the sprint “loss” was executed for entertainment. It would be like Bono coming on stage and telling the crowd, “I love [insert name of city here]”

    Unfortunately, if you want the seats filled – you have to pander to that.

    I say, “Screw that!” Stick to your higher values and be prepared to see various sporting pursuits drift into niches – accept that a discerning audience will be a smaller & maybe more eclectic crowd. Sport & play are natural expressions of our existence. Running, jumping & throwing are fundamental activities that promote good human development physically, neurally & emotionally. Audience ratings are meaningless.

    There are still a few of us who would pay just to watch David Rudisha warm-up. I would bet there are still a few athletes who you would coach for free even though it would be a little crazy for you to do that.

    It isn’t dead – just diluted.

    • Hello Lorne, thanks for you insightful comment. Maybe it is good to let track and field go down the way it is going right now.I was probably overwhelmed my my own sentiment about a sports have been passionate about, for maybe too long. But I don’t write it for myself, my days in track are long gone, but I feel a pity for the young and gifted athletes who find this sport destroyed by the common greed, stupidity, and hypocrisy of the handful politicians and lawyers that control sport at the highest level. Maybe it is diluted, no dead, but how long can you dilute a cup of coffee and still call it coffee or to accept and to drink it as such 😉

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