The IAAF World Athletics Championships in London saw two legends exit the track.
Multiple world and Olympic medallists, Usain Bolt of Jamaica and Great Britain’s Mo Farah, both called time on their stellar track careers, with Farah taking up road running, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics on his mind.
There is no doubt the two have been globally accepted superstars, and have increased interest in track and field over the last 10 years of their peak performance.
Full stadium sessions at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London whenever “Mo” was in action electrified the London championships, as did the equally vibrant crowd whenever Bolt was on the starting blocks.
In fact, on the final Saturday of action, tickets for both the morning and evening sessions at the 55,000-seater stadium sold out well in advance as Bolt’s name featured on Jamaica’s ill-fated 4×100 metres relay team line-up for the semis and final that day, while “Mo” was on the start-list for the 5,000m.
The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) along with the Diamond League and other meet directors will now have to dig deep to maintain interest in the sport, with innovation a sure way forward.
Athletes’ representative Jos Hermens, the veteran founder of Netherlands-based Global Sports Communications (GSC), has been spending hours with stablemate Valentijn Trouw and their team in Nijmegen burning the midnight oil, seeking solutions to the dilemma staring at the sport.
“I’m not so much worried about the future of athletics due to the departure of Bolt and Farah, because more stars will develop and come through,” he told me, reassuringly, in a post-championship interview.
“Usain attracted a lot of interest because he is a showman and people loved that. However, we need to think about how to innovate to keep the sport alive, because innovation is good for the sport and the only way forward,” he was quick to add.
One of the ideas on his mind is how to brand the athletes’ running kit differently, probably by introducing vest numbers — as is the case in basketball, volleyball, or even football — or sponsor logos on the apparel.
Already, GSC’s marathon wing has signed up a partnership with insurance and investment management company NN Group and launched the first professional running team with the aim of “bringing a new dimension to running.”
Among the about 60 members of the NN Running Team that has signed up to compete in 150 global competitions is Kenya’s Olympic marathon champion Eliud Kipchoge, world marathon champion Geoffrey Kirui, Chicago Marathon winner Florence Kiplagat, Dutchman Abdi Nageeye, Ethiopian legend Kenenisa Bekele and world half marathon and cross country champion Geoffrey Kamworor.
Hermens, a former three-time Dutch 5,000 metres champion, is looking to replicate the NN Running Team model in track and field where GSC manages a good number of global stars.
He has taken back control of the famous Hengelo track and field meet in the Netherlands, famously known as the FBK Games, that was briefly organised by former Belgian distance running star Bob Verbeeck of Golazo Sport, hoping to use the meet to try out fresh ideas.
“We can no longer only depend on shoe sponsors. The concept of a running team will offer possibilities for paid-up branding on the vests and shorts of the athletes,” he explains.
“It is no longer enough to only brand the running bibs and we need to do a lot more to attract extra revenues because the athletes too need to make a living out of track and field.”
Despite managing quite a number of top marathon runners, like Kipchoge and Bekele, Hermens is very much attached to track and field where his star athletes include Colombia’s Olympic triple jump champion Caterine Ibarguen who won bronze in London two weeks ago.
Hermens is worried by the number of young athletes quitting track for the marathons and other road races.
“The problem is there is too much money in road running and athletes are quick to shift from the track to the road, and rightfully so because there are just two or three 5,000m and 10,000m in the Diamond League all season which is not enough, as the athletes need to make a living. Previously, there were seven or eight races and the championships.”
At the London World Championships, GSC athletes panned a total of 15 medals — five gold, six silver and four bronze — their gold medallists including Kenya’s Faith Chepng’etich (1,500m) and Geoffrey Kirui (marathon).
The group’s Kenyan athletes are moulded locally by former Olympic steeplechase champion Patrick Sang who has emerged as one of Kenya’s most successful coaches.
From Hermens’ observation, a lot needs to be done for track and field to remain relevant, and Kenyan managers of the sport must take up the cue and rethink the way the sport is managed here.
Organising weekend meetings in the same fashion as they were run a decade ago is surely sounding the death knell for athletics development in Kenya.