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We Need More Fans

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Column by Geoff Wightman, Chief Executive of Scottish Athletics, as seen in Athletics Weekly Magazine

 

28 January 2008

 

There was a little bit of a 'stooshie' (look it up) in parts of the Scottish print media when stewards at the finish of the BUPA Great Edinburgh International Cross Country allegedly manhandled both race winners and some Ethiopian and Eritrean fans in order to get Burka and Bekele to a place of safety. Whilst it was regrettable that there was anything physical about it, I did mark it down on my list of signs that athletics is making progress. 'You know that you are generating passion within your sport when...

 

(a) You have a pitch invasion

(b) It happens in a cross country event

(c) It involves police, Rock Steady stewards and a rock star getaway vehicle (actually a golf buggy, but it is a Royal Park)

(d) There are fans from more than one continent dancing together in the freezing cold while they await the awards ceremony'.

 

 We have a lot to learn from our ex-pat East African visitors. For too long athletics has been stuck in a no-man's land as everyone's second favourite sport - great to watch during major Games, always capable of producing the Sports Personality of the Year but, for much of the calendar, not perceived as being an engaging or relevant enough to create legions of paying fans. We do 'spectators' and 'supporters' but not ‘fans’ in any great numbers. Before the British Athletics Supporters Club slap me again, you are of course the exception. We would like you to be the rule.

 

The solution to this lies in the current school age generation and the opportunity for athletics to re-position itself in the build up to London 2012 and Glasgow 2014. UK Athletics’ Norwich Union meeting at Crystal Palace can still produce a roar that is heard a mile away as can the International Indoor Curtain raiser held each year at Kelvin Hall - but below these set piece spectaculars it can be hard work to engage a youth audience that has many other options on its time. What they are watching needs to be 

 

* meaningful (medals, promotion and relegation, Cup final/eliminator)

* relevant (national or city teams that stir peoples passions in a way clubs do not

* stars (and as a lesson in how to make something out of nothing, I would say ‘darts’)

* entertaining (the major team sports, including cricket have re-modelled their basic product to create maximum excitement)

 

In the meantime, do not let the East Africans drown out the British fans at the IAAF World Cross weekend on 29/30 March in Edinburgh. We are aiming for 10,000+ on course and will be bussing in our young fans from clubs and schools at no charge. Admission to the event is free.

 

There will be sky divers, fireworks, thunder sticks, wind dancers, live music, a designated youth entertainment area and supporting races for all ages. Children in the adopt-a-nation programme could win the chance to visit their team in the Athletes Village and carry their flag in the opening ceremony www.edinburgh2008.org. Bring your own face paint.