A couple of weeks ago, the Commonwealth Games successfully seduced the nation’s collective sporting consciousness, Glasgow hosting the world’s second-largest athletics event without spending billions on infrastructure or new stadia.
Lacking big-money budgets, the Games’ organisers spent a total of £575 million, coming to sensible commercial arrangements with the owners of Ibrox, Parkhead and Hampden Park, so preventing the need to build a fourth Glaswegian stadium specifically for eleven days of competition.
On the eve of the Games’ opening ceremony, David Grevemberg, the Glasgow 2014 chief executive, rightly suggested that comparisons with London 2012 were futile. He said: “I was asked after London 2012, ‘How are you going to beat that?’ and I simply said, ‘I’m not going to try’. We’re not the Olympic Games and we’re not the Paralympic Games. We’re the Commonwealth Games and we’re going to try and do it differently.”
Glasgow succeeded. I doubt the atmosphere at Ibrox during the rugby sevens has been as intense since Rangers were demoted from the old SPL. The Commonwealth Games offered a unique platform for British athletes, divided here into eight constituent ‘nations’ of Great Britain, to shine and boy, did they take that opportunity.
A steady flow of generous Lottery funding has enabled athletes to improve at a remarkable rate. Not only do athletes receive modest basic ‘salaries’; the simultaneous access to cutting-edge sports science and the full panoply of additional support enabled British athletes to compete with the very best at London and in Glasgow. The rewards, measured in terms of gold bullion, were gratifyingly impressive. Today, every Team GB athlete benefits from a Lottery-underwritten structure which actively promotes professionalism. It might be rather detached from our traditional Corinthian approach to athletics and major events such as the Olympics, but it enables Britons to compete on level terms with the USA, Germany and China, while creating a new generation of stars.
The Brownlee brothers, Nicola Adams and Greg Rutherford have become household names, yet none are remunerated to a level that would appease even an average Championship footballer. Sixteen-year-old Claudia Fragapane won four gold medals in Glasgow and has since been described as the world’s best female gymnast. And where did she go to celebrate her golden haul after returning home to Bristol? A shopping trip to New York perhaps? A Kristal-fuelled jaunt to Dubai? Vegas? No. She went to Center Parcs with her family. As any girl next door would, a fact not lost on the marketing men currently courting a youngster who has been competing at senior level for little more than a few months.
When married to a reliable source of funding, athletic momentum can develop exponentially as last weekend’s performances in Zurich confirmed. Great
Britain finished at the head of the European Championship medal table, their record-breaking tally of 12 gold and 23 medals confirming that with individuals such as Adam Gemili, Mo Farah and Greg Rutherford (again), Britain’s athletics future is decidedly rosy. In the four-year period prior to London 2012, UK Sport awarded £265 million to Olympic sports and around £50 million to Paralympic disciplines. Since last year, the proportion of public funds to Lottery money distributed to athletes has increased, with the taxpayer contributing £40 million and the Lottery an estimated £89 million. More than £355 million in Lottery money enables athletes to train full time and benefit from support facilities matched only by the United States.
Yet while these should be times of great excitement for Team GB with athletes such as Gemili and Fragapane to the fore, the legacy of London, Glasgow and Zurich is notoriously short-lived.
As we approach the second weekend of Premier League fixtures, the division’s top four has a depressingly familiar look. The quartet kicked off their respective opening matches fielding a total of just eleven Englishmen and one Welshman.
Meanwhile, British athletics is brimming with stars – from James Dasaolu and Martyn Rooney to Tiffany Porter and Eilidh Child – so why doesn’t the warm glow afforded by athletics when we watch homegrown youngsters prosper last longer? In sport, TV exposure is everything and here, football’s dominance is unsurpassed. It’s almost two years since BT Sport threw down the gauntlet to Sky and paid £738 million to secure Premier League rights. It followed this up by spending £900 million on the exclusive rights to Champions League and Europa League matches from next season. But professional football is completely detached from normal life. It’s unlikely that any Manchester City player celebrated winning the league title by heading off to Center Parc for a week.
Meanwhile, the number of people actually playing the game at amateur level has plummeted by more than 200,000 over the past 18 months.
Athletics doesn’t just have an opportunity to become more successful on the track or field. While they’re ultra-professional, its most successful exponents remain approachable, normal individuals, not highly-paid divas adept at throwing themselves to the floor and cheating. By contrast, most athletes are boy- or girl-next-door types, but we don’t see enough of them. As the obesity crisis stalking the overfed, sedentary West continues its steady march at a cost of billions to health services and industry, perhaps broadcasters, no doubt mindful that televised football may have reached saturation point, may wish to consider this when the Premier League release its invitation to tender documents for the three seasons from 2016-17 later this year. One broadcaster could do the nation a massive favour at perhaps one tenth of the cost of acquiring Premier League rights.