Durban, South Africa — The coastal winds blew hard across the rolling grass hills surrounding the Sibaya Casino and Entertainment complex yesterday as the inaugural Global Athletics Conference — shorthand GAC 2014 — concluded its two-day confab.
Inside the elegant Izulu Theater the question emerging from this first ever such conference in Africa was whether the winds of change might soon blow equally strong over the future of athletics, both here on man’s home continent, and around this troubled global sphere in general.
As the delegates exchanged contact information and promised to follow up, long held feelings of cynicism mingled with newly found tidings of hope. Hope that what was learned and shared over the last two days might better position the sport of athletics to take on the challenges facing it in the 21st century.
But a stubborn cynicism held, too, when GAC 2014 was hustled to a conclusion so that the delegates could get home in time for their national football team’s match against Sudan in the penultimate qualifying game for next year’s 16-nation Africa Cup, and then to switch on their TVs to watch their beloved Springbok Rugby squad take on England in London’s 82,000-seat Twickenham Stadium.
Here the GAC delegates were meeting trying to figure out what athletics could do to reach a greater audience and become more relevant, and yet all most could do was wait to get home to watch other sports. Well, isn’t that athletics’ problem in a nutshell? (Both South African teams won, btw.)
I was honored to be asked to deliver the morning’s keynote address – Media Matters – and later became both a willing panelist and eager consumer of information and insights provided by other conference speakers. GAC 2014, hosted by Kwazula-Natal Athletics Federation, and directed by the energetic and visionary Lee-Roy Newton, VP of the provincial federation and president of his own Newton Agency, was brought to a close with a five-point resolution that formed the consensus of the conference principals.
1. Athletics needs to deal with its drug problem.
(Sidebar: Kenyan member of parliament Wesley Korir, the 2012 Boston Marathon champion, introduced a bill in parliament this week that would make doping a crime in Kenya for any athletes, coaches and doctors involved. This in the wake of a government Task Force report stating that 32 drug positives had been noted in 2012-2013, along with news that two-time Chicago Marathon champion Rita Jeptoo had tested positive for EPO in an out-of-competition test in September, just weeks before her second win in the Bank of America Chicago Marathon.)
2. The sport needs athletes who can communicate – teach them.
(Sidebar: One of the conference invitees was recent marathon world record holder Dennis Kimetto of Kenya, who, at age 30, sat doe-eyed and silent throughout the entire conference, becoming a poster board for the issue just raised. Though former marathon record holder and World Marathon Majors series champion Wilson Kipsang, also of Kenya, was an engaging contributor throughout the proceedings. More on Mr. Kimetto in a future blog.
3. Wide-angled development: You never know where your next champion will come from.
(Sidebar: The Olympic javelin champion hails from Trinidad, while the Commonwealth Games javelin gold medalist comes from Kenya. Whoda thunk?)
4. School and Youth Focus: Jamaican Model.
(Sidebar: 30,000 strong come out to watch the Jamaican Girls and Boys Championships in Kingston each year. But also, I note how USA Soccer helped kick-start the resurrection of its sport with Project 2010, a $55 million initiative begun in 1985 that earmarked the first-grade class of that year, and through a series of gradual steps, hoped to develop that class into a World Cup contenders by 2010. Though that level of improvement has yet to be attained, the rise in soccer’s popularity in the USA is an example how a once-ignored sport can re-emerge with a solid enough plan in place.
5. Re-staging competition to better unify athletes and engage fan interest.
(Sidebar: this was my resolution, the need to form professional track and field (and road racing) into team formats like we have in the U.S. in high school and colleges where points are added up throughout the meet so that in the end SOMEBODY WINS THE F’G TRACK MEET!)
In all it was a wonderful several days in Durban. I met some incredible people, all of whom have a passion for the sport. Hopefully, the passions released here will form into a zephyr of actions whipping the future development of the game both here in South Africa and around the globe.
See you when I get back on the Pacific coast.