Thursday, 22 December 2016

Sexed-up, watered-down events isn't what the regular athletics fan wants

There’s been much debate in recent times about the coverage of athletics and what can be done, with the sport becoming ever more tainted by doping revelations, to attract and maintain the fans that will ultimately keep the track and field show on the road.

At the moment there’s a Rift Valley-sized gulf between the let’s-see-how-many-under-informed-past-athletes-looking-for-something-to-do-with-the-rest-of-their-lives-we-can-manage-to-fit-on-one-panel-giving-their-opinions-on-Justin-Gatlin-and-Russia approach that broadcasters blindly employ (and which may well work with the sometimes follower filling a gap between football and rugby coverage on a Sunday afternoon), and what the real fans desire. Patronised and marginalised by the bereft lack of knowledge of commentators, the same clichés being rolled out at every opportunity, and the uncomfortable shuffling of pundits when asked to pass comment on anything other than their specialist event, many regular athletics fans prefer to watch TV coverage with the volume muted and spend the punditry/interview sections (otherwise known as potential prime field event time) playing along with the latest Twitter challenge set by @smokymozzarella and her fellow ‘athleticos’ (#madeupmarathonfacts and #chocolateathletes are personal favourites).

The powers that be are constantly tampering with the sport, looking at ways to make it more attractive, adding new, more innovative events, talking about making it sexier, holding international matches which at the end of the day hold no weight whatsoever, and longing for it to be more like rugby or football.

Athletics doesn’t need to be tampered with or sexed-up to make it watchable.  If 5 days of cricket is watchable, then surely 25 laps of the track, lasting less than 30 minutes, often undecided before the final 400m, shouldn’t be that difficult to sell. And one of its main selling points, surely, it that it isn't rugby or football.

The solution is actually quite simply.  Instead of depending on past stars depending on their ‘inside’ knowledge from 10 or 20 or 30 or 40 years ago to provide irrelevant, predictable background noise to the unfolding drama, simply employ commentators with an in-depth knowledge of the sport, who are willing to do some research since the last event they covered (which is hopefully more recent than the last Olympics, four years ago), who are willing to learn the name of at least one non-white female steeplechaser, and who are, how shall I put this, actually willing to commentate.

This blog, conveniently, provides one final excuse to share my favourite 4 minutes of athletics footage from 2016 – yes I’m talking about Phil Healy, Cathal Dennehy et al., and THAT video. And I say 4 minutes because, while the final lap of that Irish University (IUAA) Championship 4x400m relay final is undoubtedly noteworthy in isolation, it is the entire race, and commentary, which perfectly encapsulates everything that is good about the sport (and particularly special about the 4-lap relay), and shows us what athletics commentary could be.

Many of the contenders to the fore at the various points in that now famous race get a mention, along with some anecdote or another or, when no fact or corny pun is immediately available, a light-hearted pondering of the question at the forefront of every paty-going athlete’s mind: heels or flats later? All this adds colour and anticipation to the biggest sporting crescendo of the year, and demonstrates that Cathal and Ronan either had a decent knowledge of the athletes competing, or had actually bothered to acquire a start list.

The commentary, like Phil Healey’s run, was raw, and while the lads benefited from the informal, nothing-to-lose nature of live streaming, such a moment would have been missed by Foster who would, no doubt, have been busily reminiscing about the great Kip Kieno, or by Hutchings fanaticising over Emma Coburn (future Olympic opposition of Healy’s Depths of Hell co-star Michelle Finn - don’t worry he’d have found a way to include his favourite steeplechaser).

And, should the need to fill 10 minutes of airtime discussing annoying cross country obstacles have arisen, Dennehy or Duggan would, I hope, have known the difference between a bale of hay and a bale of straw.

No, the sport itself does not need to be sexed up. Afterall, if golden-tanned, broad-shouldered men launching their spears to the opposite end of the oval, or tall leggy blonds provocatively shaking sand from their knicker-shorts doesn’t do it for you, then there’s no hope. Athletics is, already, the sexiest sport of them all, performed by some of the finest physical specimens the human race has to offer.

Maybe, just maybe, it’s the commentary that needs refreshing.

And so, I appeal to those responsible for bringing athletics coverage to a wider audience: take a leap of faith. Employ someone - with our without an Olympic medal or world record of their own - who has some real, actual knowledge of the athletes competing and who still possesses the drive and passion to learn about the new and emerging stars. Someone who knows that there is more to the sport than Usain Bolt and his untouchability and Mo Farah and that gimmick Mo-bot. Someone who, while willing to acknowledge that Justin Gatlin and the Russians don’t have a monopoly on doping offences, still believes that athletics, with its broad variety and narrow gender gap, is the greatest sport on earth. Someone who has something to tell me, a regular fan of the sport, that I didn’t already know.

Someone who doesn't witter on about 'back in our day.'

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