• Andy Marston

The ‘Olympics problem’: How do you grow athletics beyond a once-every four years event? 🏃🏾‍♀️

Usain Bolt has done so much for athletics. Like Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan, he’s one of those once-in-a-generation athletes that transcended their sport. However, unlike with golf and basketball, athletics authorities failed to capitalise on Bolt’s stardom in setting the sport up for the future – instead, basking in short-term glory.


Bolt’s former coach Glen Mills believes that despite all the clamour around the Jamaican, his fame did far more to elevate the Olympic Games than his own sport’s marquee event, the World Athletics Championships.


“One of the things I will lament is that both locally and internationally, with a star performer of Bolt’s level, the sport did not capitalise on it in the way it should,” Mills told the Jamaica Observer.

Image: Petr Toman/ Shutterstock


So, what should the sport have done? And what can it do to put itself in the best position moving forward?


It must overcome the ‘Olympics problem’ 🥇


Ultimately, there must be an elevation of the World Athletics Championships to become the most important event in the sport (a position currently held by the Olympic Games)


As Mills explains, athletics need to create its own ‘Mecca’ and not depend on competing at the Olympics as the main endorsement for the sport and its athletes.


“All the other major sports have their Mecca competition … golf has the Masters and tennis has its grand slams. For these sports, winning at their own top event supersedes any Olympic medal and that is where track and field needs to go if it is going to survive,”


This, of course, is easier said than done.


Image: World Athletics Championships


Five Suggestions 🖐

Based on the musings of influential figures from the world of athletics like former Olympic and World Champion Justin Gatlin and Jamaica sprint coach Glen Mills, I’ve collated 5 top suggestions. 1. Become an annual event

When it comes to scheduling, the World Athletics Championships should consider itself more like The Masters than the World Cup. It should strive to create an atmosphere where athletes go every year to defend their title.


As well as keeping the sport at the pinnacle of relevance and excitement, it would also mean that the Championships would happen even in Olympic years.


This might sound crazy, but you don’t see golf, tennis, or football take a year off from their major events whenever the Olympics is on.


2. Reduce the number of performers

While events such as the FIFA World Cup get bigger and bigger, cutting the field could heighten excitement. As Coach Mills has said, “The World Championships should not be a participation event,”


There are currently too many performers. Athletes that are not of a certain level should instead participate in another Championship instead. This could be kind of like the Champions League, Europa League, and Conference League is set up by UEFA.


3. Reduce the number of rounds (and events)

By raising the standard of who gets in, you are also able to reduce the number of rounds in each event - as early rounds are currently used to accommodate athletes who are not yet at the ‘Worlds’ level.


There is also a case for reducing the number or disciplines which feature... Arguably, events such as the 100 metres shouldn’t have to do the heavy lifting for disciplines that struggle to muster up much attention of their own (such as race walking).


4. Remove the restrictions and limitations around sponsorships

Not being able to put these sponsors’ logos and names on kit is restricting the earning power of the athletes and the sport. While the IAAF eased rules on sponsorship to allow competitors and teams to wear larger logos and have greater flexibility on placement on their kit in 2019, the rules only apply outside of the World Athletics Series.


“It’s time to remove the shackle of amateurism and make it truly a professional sport,”


5. Invest more into the athlete’s characters


Just as Formula 1 Drive to Survive or UFC’s Ultimate Fighter has done, the production of content to showcase the personalities of competitors is crucial for the growth of the athletics. This is something Justin Gatlin highlighted in a recent interview.


“I think the sport should be able to do the athletes more justice and be able to create better character development. So the audience can be more invested in those runners.”


Interestingly, during Anthony Joshua's interview with Garry Neville, he gave a similar answer. Asked what was needed to 'change boxing for the better', he suggested more behind-the-scenes footage of the guys going to the Olympics.

Image: Mine Kasapoglu/ International Swimming League


Without the superstardom of Bolt to prop things up, failure to act could leave athletics in decline or at least leave World Athletics vulnerable to new challenger leagues (as was the case with FINA and the International Swimming League).