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Ed Warner | Budapest can deliver a strong world championships but athletics needs a complete rebuild to rediscover its relevance

Former UK Athletics chair Ed Warner looks ahead to the start of the World Athletics Championships in Budapest and outlines why what happens in the aftermath of the event will determine the future of the sport.

14 August 2023 Ed Warner

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“Eugene wasn’t ideal.” With these three words, World Athletics (WA) president Seb Coe consigned last year’s Covid-delayed world championships to history. And so onwards to Budapest. The track and field action starts on 19th August, preceded by WA’s biannual Congress at which Coe will be re-elected for the final time, again unopposed. Let the jockeying to be his successor begin. On this rests the very future of the sport.

The decision to go to Eugene was taken before Coe’s original election to the presidency, but it very much had his imprimatur. With the Olympics’ return to Los Angeles looming, the importance of athletics breaking out of a narrow American consciousness is heightened. Oregon is the home of Nike and was effectively the only option the international federation had to take its flagship competition to the US. The sportswear behemoth is neither an International Olympic Committee (IOC) nor WA partner, but its founder Phil Knight has a commitment to the sport and his home state that transcends brand loyalty.

In the event, the local organising committee (LOC) indisputably delivered, as did the world’s athletes. But Coe now moans that “we haemorrhaged quite a few millions of broadcasting hours”. The negative impact of the West Coast location laid bare. Scary too if Coe’s maths is correct. And yet WA will hold this year’s Diamond League final at Eugene’s Hayward Field stadium for the first time, presumably also beyond the gaze of the sport’s heartland audience in Western Europe.

Last year’s world championships in Oregon were part of athletics’ efforts to break out in America but the time zone meant the event’s wider impact was limited

Budapest is not quite a first in being an Eastern European host of the Worlds – Moscow notched that up in 2013 – but it does represent a return to something like normality for an event that has felt in need of rediscovering its identity ever since Berlin 2009. A series of boundary-testing cities have deprived it of a necessary familiarity. Even London 2017, which I chaired, created a problem. Its packed Olympic stadium and budgetary success have proven a discouragement to other hosts nervous of failing to measure up by comparison.

Right time zone, a sensible size stadium with a capacity of 35,000, good climate (fingers crossed) and a solid national athletics heritage (if not very many home medal prospects) all bode well for Budapest. The ticket website shows few evening session seats available and the globe’s athletes have been breaking national, area and world records for fun in recent weeks – who cares whether or not that’s the super shoe effect, just so long as the talent is ready to perform? I’m always wary of claims about ticket sales, so let’s see how full the stands are when the action begins. There’s little doubt though that, as in Eugene, the action will excite.

And yet I’ve a nagging fear that the world – not just the wider American public – is simply unaware. Come Paris 2024, athletics will once again prove the centrepiece of the Games. Ticket sales (and prices, much to French public chagrin) already demonstrate that. Between Olympics, though, the popularity of the sport continues to drain away. Much of the blame can be laid at the door of a ruling council at WA that is simply too hidebound, dominated by retired athletes and long-time administrators over-keen to stick with tradition and who recoil at innovation.

Seb Coe’s first two terms of office have seen him complete the much-needed modernisation of athletics’ governance, clear the stench of corruption left by his predecessor’s regime, take up cudgels against doping and stand firm on Russia’s exile from the sport. This last point may count against him when the election for IOC president comes round in 2025, should he want to take a tilt at succeeding Thomas Bach.

Were Coe to stand and win the IOC crown, he’d most likely be succeeded immediately by one of World Athletics’ four vice presidents. These positions are also up for election this week, with eight candidates standing. None is a household name – they’ve won one Olympic bronze medal between them. This may prove a challenge in international power-broking, but creativity and commercial smarts are likely to prove the primary requirements for the role. Whether the electorate of 214 member federations recognises that is another matter entirely.

Over the past few years, energised by chief executive Jon Ridgeon, WA has explored the possibility of bringing in private equity funding to help reshape and revitalise its event portfolio. It’s said that WA has since turned away from this path, but the underlying objective must surely remain sound. There’s not a great deal wrong with the centrepiece Championships that better promotion couldn’t fix, but much of the rest of the athletics calendar – especially the Diamond League itself – is a mess. Underwhelming, undersold, and often impenetrable to casual sports fans.

If Coe’s final term of office runs a full four years, he has time yet to solve this challenge himself – indeed simply must solve it. He’s shored up the foundations. Now athletics needs its complete rebuild. That can wait until next month, though. In the meantime, here’s to an exhilarating Worlds.

Ed Warner was chair of UK Athletics from 2007 to 2017 and chaired the London 2017 World Athletics Championships. He now chairs GB Wheelchair Rugby and the Palace for Life Foundation. He writes at sportinc.substack.com.

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