Gold Doesn’t Always Glitter

Every year in July our household makes two trips all the way to darkest East London for reasons of athleticism.

Early on in the month we head out to take part in the Great Newham London Run. This year we’d been having a chat a few weeks before as to whether or not we would sign up and we’d actually decided against it. Then two weeks before the race we each got a race pack through the post! I’ve no idea when we applied for it but clearly we must have done, and I’d even put in a wildly optimistic finishing time because I was in the second wave out of four!

If you want to hear more about this race you can have a look at BigCarlRunning’s race report here – Carl and I ran into each other in the starting pens  which was the first time we’ve met in the three dimensional world, so that was a lovely start to the race. I agree with all of his points about the race and there are some definite areas for improvement for Great Run to make but I always enjoy the day and I got a sneaky 2017 PB out of it, so that was good.

 

The main reason we head further east than you would have thought possible on the Central Line every summer is to go to the Anniversary Games. Ever since the London 2012 Olympics the Diamond League events in the capital are scheduled into this event, to help attract more big names and I suppose because it helps with scheduling and appealing to a wider audience. Not everyone has heard of the Diamond League, but everyone knew the Olympics was happening so even 5 years on they continue to associate the event with the glory days of that golden summer.

It’s an interesting time for athletics at the moment, and there were some stark reminders of that at this year’s Anniversary Games. Usually this is an awesome day out and it was still good this year, but something made it feel like there’s some momentum being lost. I’ve been having a think about what was lacking and why this might be.

Firstly, the stadium no longer belongs to the people organising the athletics. It’s not theirs to do what they want with. That means no cheery Gamesmakers, which was a massive part of the Olympic and Paralympic spirit. Also I have to say at the Great Newham Run this year the volunteers had absolutely no useful information – I actually heard one of them say ‘yeah, I think the start’s over there somewhere’ – and the stadium staff are not necessarily enthusiasts of the event in question anymore. They were all nice enough, but it’s all very generic. During the Games in 2012 everyone knew what was happening, everyone was loving it, and if they didn’t know something they knew a person who did and would find out for you.  The difference in attitude is a bit sad.

In the first years of the Anniversary Games it was a multi-day event with the para athletics on one day and the athletics on the other. The schedule was packed and the stadium even more so, everyone had an amazing time and at one point Usain Bolt arrived in the stadium standing atop a massive rocket. It was that kind of a gig. Last year it was whittled down to a one day event with everything all mixed in together, para and non-para, but it was still a pretty full on day. This year there was less than four hours of the main events with only one para event, and that was David Weir doing a showboat race with a load of people from his academy which to be absolutely frank seemed beneath him.

This is probably because it’s the World Para Athletics Championships this weekend (which we are also going to and which I am very excited about, I love the para athletics – it’s amazing) and the likes of Johnny Peacock, Hannah Cockcroft and Liam Malone will be preparing for that. The same goes for the non-para athletics I suppose, since it’s the World Championships back in the same stadium in August. The big names that were there were either racing different distances (Mo, who had an element of showcase to his 3k race as well) or seemed to be using it for training (KJT, Asha Philip, Dina Asher Smith).

The corporate element seems to be feeding too much into it as well these days. There were massive screen ads showing the athletes eating Muller yoghurts. I’m sure they don’t eat things with that much sugar in them really. ‘Tasty B’, the Muller bear, joined the rest of the mascots for various capers.

So far so innocuous, but when the sponsors start to impact on the actual sport I’m afraid I draw the line.

Laura Muir was there, taking on the mile. When she set out with her competitors there was an announcement that said the sponsors had set the pace they were going to aim for. Jenny Meadows was the pacemaker, in her now usual role as pacer extraordinaire for these longer track distances.

Well, it was just silly. Meadows was miles ahead of the pack and although Muir tried her damnedest not to let the crowd down she faded badly in the final 200m and ended up in second place and looking like she’d left everything on the track. She always gives it everything she’s got which is admirable but you do question what’s going on when it’s the sponsors deciding what time the athletes are going to aim for, not the coaches, the officials or the athletes themselves.

 

There were flashes of worse than overzealous sponsorship however. The men’s 4 x 400m relay team from Beijing 2008 were dragged on for a bronze medal ceremony, having been upgraded after the original medallists (Russia) were disqualified for doping. It was lovely to give them a cheer, and they got a full on national anthem podium moment, but 9 years after the fact it felt slightly odd. One of the quartet even joked that the most he runs nowadays is a weekly parkrun…although he did say his parkrun time is about 17 minutes!

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The men’s Beijing 4×400 team after receiving their newly awarded bronze medals

There was also a high jumper from Russia, Maria Lasitskene, who was competing as a neutral international athlete because of the Russian doping scandal, and I felt for her. She won the meet with a jump of 2m and the crowd gave her a great reception. But how awful to be a clean athlete and to be barred from competing for your country because of the actions of others. I’m glad she’s allowed to compete on her own merit.

Speaking of merit, there were high notes to proceedings. Aries Merritt was back with a bang, storming through the competition to win his heat and the finals of the men’s 110m hurdles. Merritt won gold at London 2012 and then disappeared off the athletics scene for a while as he was undergoing a kidney transplant. He gave an emotional interview after his race, saying that he felt it was important for him to be back out there to show that ‘no matter what you’re going through in life you can always come back and do whatever you want’.

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Aries Merritt after his 110m hurdles win – looking forward to seeing what he does at the Worlds

That’s excellent advice for athletics and for life from a man about whom there is much to admire, and it was a hopeful note in a strange day. My own hope is that this year’s Anniversary Games suffered from a lack of big names because of the two world championships on the horizon, and that the crowds will come out for those competitions and show the athletes their support.

Having said that, going to watch live athletics really isn’t about the big names, certainly not in isolation. It’s great to see the superstars, but some guy or girl you’ve never heard of might pull an amazing performance out of the bag. If you’re close enough to feel the athletes whoosh past on the 100m straight you won’t care about who’s in the race, just about how they’re running it. I would encourage any recreational runner to go to a track meet and just watch and learn – it doesn’t have to be world champions or Olympians that you’re watching.

One of the best parts of the Anniversary Games in recent years has been the club relays for the junior athletes which take place at the start of the day. There are usually fewer people there to watch which is a genuine shame. There’s no silly sponsorship going on, no Mobots or Bolts getting in the way. There’s just a group of young people who have trained hard for the chance to represent their club in the biggest stadium in the country. They run their hearts out. It’s truly inspiring, and it makes me wish I’d had a go at athletics when I was much, much younger.

For me, the day belonged to them.

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