Governance to manage the future of athletics
20 Aug 2020

If there is a competition that can be matched in appeal to the Olympics, it is the World Athletics Championships. Every two years, events such as the marathon, the 400m. hurdles, the athletic march, or the long and high jump, among others, demonstrate their immense power of attraction to sponsors and the media. But if this competition exists, it is mainly because for 108 years its governing body, World Athletics, has exercised its leadership and governance. Always aiming for athletes to receive an adequate reward for their effort; common rules on how to dispute and equip themselves in each discipline; a register of world records; and as an organism that helps prevent doping. They are not small challenges, and they get bigger when we consider that they have to group the interests and demands from 214 federations. One for each country in the world, with more members than the UN itself. As if that was not enough, this year they also faced a challenge never posed until 2020, due to the coronavirus pandemic. Their event will coincide with the celebration of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

The pandemic imposed the need to change the date of the Olympic Games, which will finally be held one year after its initial date. Their new schedule not only coincided with the World Athletics Championships, but it also conflicted with the dates of the Commonwealth Games and with the European Athletics. Three great world events, aimed at the same group of athletes and fans, in different parts of the world. It would have been impossible to go to all of them, the athletes would miss events, the public would spread out instead of concentrating, and the sponsors would lose interest and reduce their investment. It could have been a blow to athletics in all its forms, but the leadership and joint governance of the International Olympic Committee and the World Athletics (WA) demonstrated how fundamental institutions like these are for sports, and for those who practice them professionally.

The strategy adopted by WA was, first of all, to step back before the IOC. Far from questioning its proposal to delay the Olympic Games, they supported it, even if it was harmful to them. That meant acknowledging its role as a smaller organisation. They were actually pressing in the shadows, looking for an appropriate solution for athletes, and trying, by all means, to prevent the games from being held without an audience. The option had been considered, and the athletes were the first ones to speak out against it. Empty stadiums not only harm the show, they negatively pressure the competitor, used to the spirit and atmosphere that the stands transmit. Not to mention that they do not have the same media impact.

World Athletics was not satisfied with just expressing its opinion as a way to influence Tokyo 2020. It also began to meet from the outset with the organisations that manage the other two major athletics events, the Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF) and the European Athletics Association (AEA). If the three of them delayed their celebrations one year because of the Olympic Games, all the events would be held at the same time. Again, athletes would not have time to recover between some events and the next, many times not even to travel to the cities where they were held.

On April 8, the WA announced the solution adopted: turning the summer of 2022 into 6 insane weeks for athletics fans and their sponsors, in which the three competitions will take place one after the other. “There will be as many medal counts and number of events gathered as never before in history, making their sporting modalities have total prominence worldwide”. In this so positive way, it was announced by the president of World Athletics, Sebastian Coe. And it is true that athletes have seen an opportunity in this alternative, and the sponsors and media in charge of broadcasting it too. They have all renewed their contracts for the new dates, thanks to a great extent to WA’s intervention. Although they would have never competed at such close dates had they been able to choose.

But if 2020 and its pandemic has taught us anything is that it does not leave too many options. In fact, while Tokyo and the IOC were deciding, these three organisations held videoconference meetings between the cities hosting the events and the 214 federations, 70 of which are part of the European ones and 50 others of the Commonwealth. At the same time, they were trying to convince sponsors and the media, fundamental for each event to have a global impact, to be flexible and support the change of dates. And it is that with the COVID-19 we have received a valuable lesson from these new times, related to sports leadership and governance: we must anticipate being able to adapt quickly to changes. It is the difference between failure and success, and it will be for a long time.

Martín Sacristán


Building the future of the sports industry