Why athletics is far from dead

Drugs revelations damage the sport, but the wounds are never fatal

Usain Bolt (Mark Shearman)

Athletics is at death’s door, according to some people. The latest drugs revelations, they argue, are effectively the final nail in the coffin. The last rites are being read over a sport on life support.

I’ve heard it all before – and it’s nonsense.

Yes, the stories surrounding Tyson Gay, Asafa Powell and others are horrendously dispiriting, disappointing and disastrous. For starters, it was a travesty that so many brilliant performances at last weekend’s major events in cities like Donetsk, Tampere and Birmingham were overshadowed by this news.

Athletics, though, will carry on. Just as it did following the Ben Johnson and BALCO scandals.

In the winter of 2007-08 the head of communications at the London 2012 organising committee scoffed when I suggested athletics was the No.1 Olympic sport. She argued the sport was a laughing stock and that no one could take the blue ribbon event, the men’s 100m, seriously.

It was difficult to argue with her, as she was speaking just days after Marion Jones had been busted. In fact, at the time I thought she made a fair point as she explained how swimming and cycling were edging past track and field as the premier Olympic attraction.

Fast forward five years to London 2012, though, and Usain Bolt was the star of the Games. Fans caused websites to crash in their frenzy to pay hundreds of pounds to watch him run for nine seconds. Even now, 12 months later, tickets for the Sainsbury’s Anniversary Games at the Olympic Stadium sold out in two hours when they went on sale.

No sports fan enjoys hearing about drugs stories. We despise learning that our heroes were frauds all along. But it is a fact that fans continue to flock to these so-called drug-ridden sports despite the negative and seemingly never-ending doping scandals.

Cycling has a similar – some would say worse – reputation than athletics. Yet thousands of fans have flocked to the roadside and mountain passes this month for the Tour de France. Even Lance Armstrong’s confession that he doped in seven Tour de France wins has not put them off.

Why human nature causes us to forgive and forget like this, I am not sure. Take Dwain Chambers, for example. The British sprinter was vilified when he was first revealed to be a cheat but now he is cheered by fans and accepted by most fellow athletes and journalists.

This is the European attitude, too. Because is it fair to say that the American public generally are even more sympathetic or, to be blunt, don’t care if their sport stars dope?

If Usain Bolt or, in the UK, Paula Radcliffe tested positive for drugs, the damage would be far more severe. But have Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell destroyed the sport? Not a chance.

The drugs revelations won’t stop Joe Jogger going for his five-mile run today to keep fit. Jessica Ennis and Mo Farah won’t have any fewer fans today. My local athletics club will be just as busy tomorrow as it was last week. The parents and coaches of all the kids who compete in zillions of teenage track and field competitions across the world won’t suddenly tell their young charges to quit the sport.

Athletics is also one of the oldest and purest of sports. The simple acts of running, jumping and throwing are at the core of every sport and have been around since the dawn of time. A few cheating sprinters, therefore, are not going to destroy this most primevil of pursuits.

Sadly, though, there will always be athletes who cheat. Just as there will be people who try to bend the rules and break the law in every walk of life.

So is this the end of athletics? No.

By the way, here’s a shock for the critics, pessimists and doom-mongers - Athletics Weekly will be out again this week. We’re looking forward to our 70th anniversary issue in 2015, too.

» Jason Henderson has edited AW since 2001 and tweets at @Jason_AW

3 Responses to “Why athletics is far from dead”

  1. James Adams says:

    I completely agree. In the same way that boycotts will never kill off the Olympics, a drugs scandal, even a high profile one, will never spell the end for athletics. It is a crushing disappointment but nothing more. The sport would only die if everyone wanted it to, which of course they don't. In my experience it is only people (and unfortunately journalists) who know next to nothing about athletics who peddle such idiotic doomsday scenarios.

  2. hugh says:

    of course athletics isnt dead…..but its refreshing to see cheats get caught …we really know that athletes who can continually churn out sub tens or sub elevens have to under suspicion …therev is probably a good reason no white man has won an olympic 100 medal since 1980 , and it has little to do with not having enough talent…

  3. robert bradley says:

    Track and Field does far more than any other sport in the world to catch the cheats, so inevitably they're going to hit the headlines from time to time. If you don't chase down the cheats then you won't catch any – take football or tennis as examples. The testing in these sports is almost non existent and therefore the cheats don't get caught. But do we really think that these multi billion pound sports are clean? That assumption would be naive in the extreme.
    Athletics should be proud of it's record on catching the cheats. It's the sports that do virtually nothing to catch the drug users that should hang their heads in shame.

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