Durban, South Africa – In this year of 2014 South Africa has been celebrating the 20th anniversary of its transition from apartheid state to non-racial democracy. On December 5th it will mark an especially moving moment in that celebration with the commemoration of the one year’s passing of its beloved father figure Nelson Mandela. With the great divide of apartheid receding, the people of this proud land now look to the future for opportunities to showcase their country to the world, opportunities which were denied it during the long, painful road to freedom.
This weekend I am half a world away deep in the southern hemisphere in lovely Durban, South Africa, a warm, Miami-like seaside city which is playing host to what is being billed as Africa’s first Global Athletics Conference. The two-day GAC 2014 is the offspring of conference director, Lee-Roy Newton, a retired South African sprinter who was a member of his country’s 4 X 100m World Championship gold medal squad in 2001.
Today, Newton is owner of the Newton Agency, and vice-president of Kwazulu-Natal Athletics. Newton, along with KZN Athletics president Sello Mokoena have brought together a collection of the sports’ business, athletic and media leaders to help the sport’s South African stakeholders better understand the elements necessary to launch serious bids for future world athletic championships. The 2022 Commonwealth Games is among the international meetings on its immediate radar. South Africa has hosted major international competitions before, including the 2010 FIFA World Cup. But though they have produced some of the continent’s great track athletes, they have yet to host a major Diamond League track meet or a marathon on par with the six World Marathon Majors. As one of the two keynote speakers at the conference, I have been asked to speak about the role the media can play in facilitating the staging of world class events in South Africa, though I will also express views on how the sport itself might better attract the media with changes in the way it stages and presents itself.
Today, fellow keynoter and conference emcee, Ato Boldon, the four-time Trinidadian Olympic sprint medalist and NBC track commentator, met with members of the South African media along with legendary multi-eventer Jackie Joyner-Kersee of the U.S., three time Olympic champion and six time Olympic medalist; and recent marathon world record holder Dennis Kimetto of Kenya.
“The business of athletics has to start with an honest conversation,” Boldon said when asked how important the business end of athletics would be in fighting off cricket, rugby, and football, the big three sports here in South Africa. “And that’s why this event is so important. The market will dictate the state of a product. There has been a lot of patting ourselves on the back on what is being done right. What we gloss over are the things we are deficient in, from marketing to the doping issue which is always around.”
The sporting world has witnessed a number of long-standing sports take on new looks to stake better connect to an increasingly fragmented public attention, while trying to garner a larger slice of the sporting sponsorship pie. Cricket has very successfully gone to a Twenty20 format and rugby found new fans with its sevens format. In that sense, Boldon said athletics needed a fresh outlook, as well, if it didn’t want to be dropped farther in the race for sporting relevance.
“We need to take some chances. I am an IAAF ambassador, and in meeting with the IAAF (the international governing body of the sport of athletics), we fight battles with the old guard who want no changes. But British Athletics is a model for the rest of the world. They do things like City Games, which brings track events to the roads. In the Bahamas we had the IAAF Relay World Championships. They took a chance. And the athletes loved it, the fans loved it. We need to be braver as a sport, and take some more chances.”
“We have a duty to make sure the sport isn’t just a once every four years thing,” added Ms. Joyner-Kersee, one of the most respected athletes the sport has produced. “We are passionate about it, but we need to make others passionate about it, too. If we don’t, the sport is going to die.”
There is a reception tonight at the beautiful Oyster Box Hotel alongside the Indian Ocean. Tomorrow the conference will begin at Durban’s Sibaya Casino. The last two marathon world record holders will also be on hand, Dennis Kimetto, who set the new record in Berlin in September (2:02:57), and recent TCS New York City Marathon champion Wilson Kipsang, both of Kenya.
I will file a report upon the completion of GAC 2014.