Nick Davies, deputy secretary general of the IAAF
In the centenary year of the IAAF, and just ahead of the start of the London Olympic Games, Catherine Davies spoke to the IAAF’s deputy secretary general Nick Davies
The centenary of the founding of the IAAF, the world governing body for the sport of athletics, falls in July this year, the same month as the start of the Olympic Games in London, giving the federation an opportunity to underline its belief that the sport of athletics is a major pillar - perhaps the major pillar - of the games.
Among the key challenges that the IAAF has set itself in a new strategic review is: ‘To make the IAAF’s relationship with the IOC a key priority so as to underline and enhance the IAAF’s role in the Olympic movement and the continuing contribution of athletics to the success of the summer Olympic Games.’
The relationship with the Olympics is a sometimes touchy one: while it can be argued that the games are increasingly the lifeblood of the sport, the IAAF also claims that they rely heavily on the sport of athletics and it has staunchly defended the amount it earns as its share of Olympic television revenues.
At close to 10 per cent of the total distributed for the 2012 games, the $35.77 million that athletics will get is nearly double the amount handed out to the second tier of sports, including swimming (FINA) and gymnastics (FIG), and over three times more than the $11.19 million that sports like boxing (AIBA) and table tennis (ITTF) will earn this year.
But Nick Davies, the IAAF’s deputy secretary general, emphasised that the Olympic Games are “very important for athletics and vice versa. We should not forget that from 1896 until 1980 the Olympic Games was the official athletics World Championships and so athletics, as a core sport, has always had a very special place in the Olympic Movement, especially if you consider that the ancient Olympic Games was essentially based on athletics.”
Like the IOC, the IAAF, which is based in Monaco, is keen to ensure that its sport adapts to the times, with Davies saying that “the world is constantly changing and the IAAF is not complacent.”
He added that the federation is working on strategies to adapt its competition programmes to reflect the increasing diversity of the sport and entertainment world open to the public.
Davies was promoted to deputy secretary general at the same time as the appointment of general secretary Essar Gabriel at a council meeting held before the 2011 IAAF World Championships in Daegu, Korea.
“We want to expand into new markets, but most importantly, make sure that we continue attracting new participants to our sport.”
The IAAF’s links with the IOC look set to benefit from the fact that Gabriel joined the IAAF directly from the IOC, where he held the post of director of the Youth Olympic Games.
Davies argued that it should not be forgotten that athletics is the only sport in the two-week competition period of the Olympic Games to attract more than 1 million spectators to stadium events and more than 2 million spectators to road events (the men’s and women’s marathons and walks). He said: “Those figures, which of course are vital from a ticket revenue perspective, should not be underestimated.”
Sergey Bubka, the former Olympic pole vault gold medallist who is now an IOC member and IAAF vice president - and one of the heirs apparent to IAAF president Lamine Diack, who is due to retire in 2015 - has been at the forefront of pushing changes to improve athletics coverage on television, and earlier this year launched a Twitter discussion on whether medal ceremonies in stadiums cause distraction and delays.
Davies said: “Athletics, like all the Olympic sports and the Olympic Movement overall, has to take the necessary actions to retain its appeal to the young generation. We have already had medal ceremonies outside the athletics stadium – in the city centre – in a bid to connect with the wider public, but in other cases, the tradition of receiving a medal in a packed stadium is also hard to beat, so you need to have flexibility and consider each championships on an individual basis.”
Part of the challenge that the IAAF faces is to drive and maintain interest in the sport outside the Olympic Games, where, for one week every four years, it has top billing.
The federation announced the launch of its Athletics’ World Plan in 2003, as a ‘living framework’ to further develop the sport, and, on the eve of the IAAF centenary, the three-part initiative is now reaching the final phase.
This plan, according to Davies, has “delivered in its aim to make our sport fit for the demands of the 21st century. We are now keen to enhance and improve our competition programmes, to increase awareness and build a bigger worldwide fan-base. We want to expand into new markets, but most importantly, make sure that we continue attracting new participants to our sport.”
Davies said: “When you talk about athletics in 2012, you need to accept that there is now both the traditional top level international competitions, with elite athletes competing, but also a vast world of mass participation, not only in the area of road running competition but also sport activity at grass roots level which has very little to do with competition as such and everything to do with social inclusion, and physical activity as a healthy end in itself, effectively training without competition.”
The IAAF has made significant efforts in recent years to get closer to the road running competition world, and has created a system of IAAF gold, silver and bronze labels, but it has also worked hard on grass roots initiatives aimed at young people with a project designed to make athletics the number one sport in schools worldwide. This ambition, Davies claimed, is “easier for us because in all sports you need to be ‘athletic’ – even if the path then leads to other sports eventually.”
The remainder of 2012 will be devoted to celebrating the IAAF’s first 100 years of service to the sport. The celebrations are, according to Davies, already in full swing. He said: “We kicked off with a dinner that was hosted in Istanbul prior to the World Indoor Championships, and this [commemoration] will continue to unfold itself throughout the year. July 17 is indeed the anniversary date, and we will be having a celebration here in Monaco together with the Principality. The climax of our celebrations will come on November 25 with the Centenary Gala in Barcelona.”
The federation will also host an IAAF Dinner, celebrating its centenary as part of the Olympic Games, in London on August 2.
Davies said: “It’s something we can be proud of, not only at the level of the international federation as it went through the century but also the glorious past achievements that have been those on the track and beyond.”