Monday, 03 July 2017 11:43

British athletics faces crucial world championships after trials no-shows | Sean Ingle

The meagre crowds at UK Athletics trials suggest the sport desperately needs a boost. Can the next wave of British stars provide it in London?

A tale of two cities. The best of times, and the worst of times.

First – Ostrava on a molten Wednesday night for two hours of athletics’ greatest hits. Usain Bolt wins the 100m and spends an hour smiling for selfies; Wayde van Niekerk shatters the 300m world record; David Rudisha suffers a shock 1,000m defeat; Mo Farah gallops away to another 10,000m victory to booming bellows of “Mo! Mo!”. Fireworks off the track and on it. A sellout 30,000 crowd, thirsty and delirious, lapped it up.

Then – Birmingham; a weary weekend pilgrimage for the UK Athletics trials. No Farah. No Greg Rutherford. No Laura Muir. No Katarina Johnson-Thompson. No Jo Pavey. All of them training or injured. To make matters worse, when CJ Ujah runs a 9.98sec 100m easing down – one of the performances of the weekend – no one celebrates because it takes 10 minutes for his time to show due to technical problems. No wonder the attendance is equivalent to a League Two football fixture.

As the Beijing 2008 javelin bronze medallist Goldie Sayers put it: “I think it’s probably the worst crowd I’ve seen in the last 10 years. We do need our big names here to draw the crowd.”

True, Bolt will always trump anything Birmingham can offer. You can also understand why athletes with minor niggles get clearance to skip the event to keep their powder dry for the world championships in London next month. But the thousands of empty seats send a message. To sponsors. To athletes. To everyone that turns on to BBC2 for four hours of live coverage on Sunday afternoon. This is a sport that not enough people care about.

Of course it will be different when the world championships arrive. There will be packed stands and, organisers hope, a return of that giddy London 2012 vibe, when the smiles were so broad it appeared that everyone had undergone botox. Yet that generation of British athletes has almost come to an end. Between them Jessica Ennis‑Hill, Christine Ohuruogu, Farah and Rutherford have won the vast majority of individual British gold medals at Olympics and world championships over the past decade. Yet none of them are likely to be competing on the track by the end of 2018.

The next generation needs to take over sooner rather than later. And, judged on the evidence of Birmingham, blast into the mainstream in London, or the sport’s stature might tumble a little further.

True, there are British athletes with medal chances. The brilliant Muir has run 3min 55sec for 1500m and has a huge opportunity – yet it will be incredibly tough given she will face the Olympic champion, Faith Kipyegon, the Ethiopian world record holder, Genzebe Dibaba, and Sifan Hassan, who has been reinvigorated since being coached by Alberto Salazar.

After Muir there are several possible medal contenders – but very few probables. Andrew Pozzi was second in the Paris Diamond League on Saturday with a 110m hurdles personal best of 13.14sec – a time that puts him eighth in the world. The gap between a medal could come down to the width of a vest. Johnson-Thompson has chances in the heptathlon and high jump, as does Ujah in the 100m and Sophie Hitchon in the hammer. Otherwise it is slim pickings and even the relays, the lowest of low-hanging fruits, do not look like providing the usual British medals – especially given that Adam Gemili and Zharnel Hughes were limping after the 200m final and the performances of many of the men’s and women’s 400m team were sub-par in Birmingham.

Of course Farah will deliver. He always does. But it is not unreasonable to fear there will be several days between British medals in London. If that happens, some of the frustrations and squabbles about the direction of the sport in the UK are bound to bubble over.

Some worry that a more driven culture of success under Charles van Commenee is slipping back. Others about the standard of coaching. There are questions about the lack of sponsorship at senior and junior level too. And, from the outside, a refrain that those in power do not like to hear dissenting voices.

As one coach put it to me: “You have two options – play the game, be safe, become institutionalised and keep your job. Or, alternatively, try to move the sport forward by rocking the boat a little, and be fought at every turn. Pretty much everyone chooses the first option.”

It should be said in mitigation that athletics is a proper global sport, which makes it far harder to win world medals in track and field than, say, track cycling – where the UK invests far more than any other nation and has a large technological edge, too. But few will listen to that argument if Britain’s athletes do not hit their medal target in London.

Speak to old-timers and they caution that these things work in cycles. Rutherford and Farah, for instance, were members of Britain’s disastrous 2006 European championship team, after which the BBC’s Brendan Foster predicted a “doomsday scenario” at the London Olympics. Instead we had Super Saturday. Yet the question on a bright but troubling Sunday evening in Birmingham was this: when the next generation arrives, will there be enough fans to give them the support their talents deserve?

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