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Athletics must get back up to speed and adapt in order to regain popularity, claims Paralympic legend Jason Smyth

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Six-time Paralympic champion Jason Smyth celebrates the start of the Commonwealth Games athletics competition with youngsters at The Mary Peters Track in Belfast

Six-time Paralympic champion Jason Smyth celebrates the start of the Commonwealth Games athletics competition with youngsters at The Mary Peters Track in Belfast

Getty Images for The National Lo

Jason Smyth wants better promotion and more excitement

Jason Smyth wants better promotion and more excitement

©INPHO/Laszlo Geczo

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Six-time Paralympic champion Jason Smyth celebrates the start of the Commonwealth Games athletics competition with youngsters at The Mary Peters Track in Belfast

When asked why he’d switched his attention to the 100m in the build-up to last year’s Tokyo Olympics, last month’s newly minted sprint world champion Fred Kerley answered succinctly.

At the end of the day, nobody really comes to watch anything besides ‘The Fastest Man in the World’,” said the 27-year-old, whose earlier career had been devoted to longer distances and can count himself as the eighth fastest man in history over 400m.

“So if you ask me what I want to be, I want to be the ‘Fastest Man in the World’.”

With that objective achieved, Kerley’s quote hit upon a wider issue for the sport.

The 100m no doubt remains the marquee event in track and field but, even then, Kerley, his compatriots Marvin Bracy and Trayvon Bromell, who helped complete a first American sweep of the podium in the event for 31 years, and even presently-injured reigning Olympic champion Lamont Marcell Jacobs hardly qualify as household names.

It was at those same World Championships in Eugene, Oregon that Lord Sebastien Coe, gold medallist in the 1,500m at the 1980 and '84 Olympics, voiced misgivings about how athletics has been marketed Stateside and subsequently ceded ground to other sports. In truth, it is far from a uniquely American phenomenon.

As almost 30,000 packed the stadium in Birmingham yesterday for the start of the athletics at the Commonwealth Games, on this side of the Atlantic the conundrum remains how such enthusiasm can be channelled outside such major events.

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“It’s a difficult one,” admits Jason Smyth, Eglinton’s own sprint king who won a sixth Paralympic gold in Tokyo last year.

“I don’t know the answer but, when you look back over time, the reality is that athletics gets less interest than it used to.

“I’ve heard people talk about being down here at the Mary Peters Track at a time when people would have been stacked up on those banks coming to watch the athletics. That’s not the case now.”

Smyth, who represented Northern Ireland in the 100m at the Glasgow Games in 2014, is not in action this time around as his own Paralympic discipline is not included and has instead enjoyed the opportunity to act as a spectator in a rare year without a major Championship.

Still, he believes a key to the future will be improving the spectator experience.

“There’s not one simple answer,” he says. “How the sport is promoted, how we make it more exciting, is where the real challenge lies.

“You see in other sports, what cricket has done for example with still having Test cricket but also T20 to try and make it more exciting.

“How athletics can do that, I don’t have the answer, but how do you make an event more exciting is one element that needs to be explored more.

“Society has shifted too. The way people consume sport and media has changed massively.

“So it’s how do you adapt to that? I don’t know if I have any answers, but you can see all the different dynamics that are in play and it becomes how you think outside the box to go about promoting sport, and athletics isn’t the only sport trying to figure that out.”

It is not so long ago that, while admittedly only for fewer than 10 seconds every couple of years, athletics boasted arguably the most exciting spectacle in all of sport, the fastest man in history Usain Bolt in full flight.

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Jason Smyth wants better promotion and more excitement

Jason Smyth wants better promotion and more excitement

©INPHO/Laszlo Geczo

Jason Smyth wants better promotion and more excitement

Perhaps a never-to-be-repeated phenomenon, Bolt’s off-the-scale marketability offers a stark contrast to Coe’s recent comments about “complacency” in promotion of sport and athletes.

“The likes of Usain Bolt loved that,” says Smyth of the Jamaican, who also appeared at the Commonwealths eight years ago.

“And he had the right personality for it but there’s very successful athletes sometimes and that’s just not them. And then it’s how do you get that same brand built around it.”

The likes of Elaine Thompson-Herah and Katarina Johnson-Thompson will bring an element of star power to Birmingham but, similar to tennis trying to find a market when the likes of the ‘Big Four’ and Serena Williams are absent, there is a feeling that athletics can drift from the public’s consciousness beyond the very biggest of events.

While there is a brilliant simplicity to track and field as both a spectator and participation sport — who can run the fastest, jump the highest or throw the farthest is easily digestible by even casual observers — it lacks the partisanship of team sports that can maintain interest regardless of the individuals wearing the jersey.

“It definitely is the challenge and it’s one faced by a lot of individual sports,” says Smyth. “Team sports tend to be more exciting and more fun, they have that element of playing with a group of guys and other girls.

“Individual sports, yes you’ll be together training in a camp but when it comes to competing and performing, it’s very much you. The flipside of that is when things go well, so there can be pluses.

“But you can’t be competing at a high level every week so the visibility drops massively.

“The amount of preparation that goes into trying to win a 10-second race is thousands and thousands of hours.

“To get it right in one instance and one situation, that’s a challenge. To be seen more, you’re going to pull back on people's ability to perform at that very high level.”

As such, opportunities such as during these Commonwealth Games are relatively rare chances to pierce the public consciousness, something Smyth believes is invaluable given the myriad benefits to be found through athletics, whether at the very top level or the most loosely organised involvement.

“I think when you take a step back and think, ‘What does sport do?’, sport gives the ability to break down barriers in all aspects of life that other things don’t do,” says Smyth, who was taking part in a National Lottery-organised training session with local children at the Mary Peters Track in Belfast.

“It has the ability to inspire young people to want to be better, to want to achieve, to want to reach their potential. These are hugely powerful things that sport can do.

“So ‘home’ Games are massive. Obviously my experience of that is in London 2012.

“I think a number of different elements to it show how (building the sport), there’s a circle to it.

“Firstly, it means the coverage is significantly more, so that means that sport is seen. Media is the avenue that most people see sporting figures and then, in turn, think that they want to do what they’re doing.

“Athletes and sports people are put in this position of being someone (that others) aspire to be and that’s what the Games give through all the extra coverage, the extra awareness, just being seen.

“But that requires athletes to be at a certain level, which also requires the funding from the likes of the National Lottery.

“They fund this track, they fund the Commonwealth Games. All these things work together to inspire others. Even if they only want to train and be healthy, that’s fabulous.

“Sport for me has the potential to have such a positive impact on peoples’ lives and that’s why it’s so important.”

National Lottery players raise more than £30m a week for good causes including vital funding into sport – from grassroots to elite. Find out how your numbers make amazing happen at www.lotterygoodcauses.org.uk and get involved by using the hashtag #TNLAthletes


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