The World Athletics Championships should be a celebration of the sport and alongside the Olympic Games, the ultimate showcase of the crème de la crème of running, jumping and throwing.
Sadly, the IAAF-hosted event in Doha which came to a conclusion on Sunday did more to embarrass the premier Olympic sport than elevate it. Drug controversies around men’s 100m winner Christian Coleman and distance running coach Alberto Salazar put more sizable dents in the sport’s credibility. As did the strength-sapping humidity of the road events.
But the crowds – or lack of them in the Qatari capital – also massively hurt the prestige of the sport. I say this as a fan of athletics, but I watched events unfold more with fingers over my eyes than with clenched fists.
Why should this matter to a any everyday jogger or parkrun nut? Perhaps it doesn’t immediately impact most runners. But like any sport, athletics and running – as by far the biggest discipline – needs the arteries of fresh blood running into it to survive and thrive.
I doubt there will be many people who would have been inspired to either try athletics, take their children to a local athletics club or simply go for a run, off the back of witnessing swathes of empty stands unavoidable to TV audiences in Doha.
The contrast with this summer’s Cricket World Cup and the ongoing Rugby World Cup could not be starker for athletics.
It is difficult for second-tier sports to compete against the behemoth of football for attention, but cricket and rugby have delivered packed stadiums, excitement and a relevance to young people in particular that has made athletics look like yesterday’s sport in contrast.
It’s very difficult to say the exact role athletics heroes like Coe, Cram, Gunnell, McColgan, Radcliffe played in my own participation in the sport. But it definitely played some part. Running was very much part of my consciousness and the top athletes ran in front of packed crowds and were household names…it was an exciting scene.
Athletics still has those amazing talents and personalities like Dina Asher-Smith and Callum Hawkins, but without the stage, I fear there will be millions more children wanting cricket bats or rugby balls than running shoes in their Christmas stocking this winter.