By Mitch Phillips
LONDON (Reuters) - Athletics’ proud position as the number one Olympic sport is far from secure, according to Britain’s triple jump champion-turned broadcaster Jonathan Edwards, who also says the Diamond League needs to focus more on big names and less on equality.
Edwards has seen the sport from both sides, from a hugely successful competitive career that brought him Olympic, world, European and Commonwealth gold and a world record that still stands, through to 14 years as a pundit and broadcaster, and says it faces tremendous challenges.
"It’s absolutely not secure," he said of the sport’s self-styled position at the heart of the Olympics.
"Having worked with the BBC I've seen how they changed their editorial policy towards athletics over the course of the last few Games, where once it would have been unheard of not to be live for the whole evening session of athletics but now you might be flipped to the red button.
"That’s a function of course of Britain being more successful but no longer can athletics take its position for granted and certainly not after Rio."
Although the athletics program in the 2016 Games produced spectacular and memorable performances on the track, not least Usain Bolt’s “triple triple” of sprint titles, it took place against a backdrop of thousands of empty seats, even for high-profile evening sessions.
"That venue and those crowds did not look good so that’s why London is so important for athletics, to say 'here’s a sport that matters , a sport that’s important, it's worth your attention',” Edwards said at an event to promote August’s world championships in the British capital.
“The 2012 Olympics stood out as the best of anything I’ve experienced as an athlete and broadcaster and the Anniversary Games in the same stadium was great and I think this, with Usain Bolt's, and probably Mo Farah’s swansong, will be electric.
“But there’s no question that athletics, as a sense of occasion, has tailed off over the last 20 years or so and it faces some real challenges.”
International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) president Sebastian Coe has also voiced concern and recently announced several changes in format to the flagship Diamond League series.
Edwards, however, said that the tweaks needed to go much further in an attempt to win back the lost audiences.
“If you look back to the mid-90s you had Zurich, Brussels, Rome, London etc, which were big meetings, they would put on events almost stand-alone events,” he said.
“Now you have the Diamond League, which is all very fine and equitable in that you have as many opportunities for a women’s discus thrower as a men’s 100metre runner. But I think the meetings need to be more market-driven, frankly and less sport purist-driven.
"I think athletics should start to think less about trying to jazz it up with novelty like the Nitro event (a radical new team-based format rolled out in Australia last month) but make the most of what is an incredibly exciting, pure form of sport.
“But at the moment for a broadcaster and a fan it’s hard to find a sense of continuity. How many people in the UK knew about (South African Olympic 400m champion) Wayde van Niekerk? Nobody. You need to build personalities over the season or several seasons.
“So in trying to be fair and equal across all events I think athletics has lost a bit of the marketability that you need to punch your weight in the current climate because there is so much sport going on out there.”
(Editing by: Toby Davis)