Olympian turned commentator Tim Hutchings on the need for athletes to connect with their fans and why he thinks Samuel Tefera’s world record reaction should be seen as a lesson
In the immediate aftermath of the world indoor 1500m record by Samuel Tefera in Birmingham, when making comment on social media, I was cautious not to directly criticise Tefera himself for his lack of celebratory reaction last Saturday. Rather, I feel it is beholden on the agent and/or support team of the athlete to teach said athlete what are the norms and expectations in the environment they’re performing in.
And before anyone jumps down my throat and rages that he’s entitled to react the way he sees fit and the way perhaps his culture sees as normal, I think we need to acknowledge that this is not a big expectation or big “ask” we’re talking about.
After all, is it asking too much of a winning athlete (we must accept he may not have known he’d broken the world record, though some would argue that in itself would be sad), that they show some positive reaction, some joy, if not unbridled, at their result – particularly when there is already a language barrier? In fact, in my experience, the vast majority of athletes, irrespective of cultural background, would have visibly enjoyed that very special moment.
The issue for me is the contradiction of what took place, and which I’m saddened to say, happens again and again at different events around the track and road circuit. Tefera is operating in a sport where the economics are delicately balanced, and which is having to fight to hold its status in the grand sporting arena.
The sport needed him to react visually, at least, because a trackside interview was not going to happen. There needs to be – yes, there NEEDS to be – a connection with the paying spectators, with the adoring public who have just roared him to the line. His subdued, or rather non-existent, reaction was utterly bizarre, as Steve Cram rightly pointed out on BBC, and the sport cannot afford to have iconic, rare, barrier-breaking moments so dramatically muted by the very person who has achieved so much.
The sport, any sport, needs its heroes – as IAAF president Seb Coe said recently, its great performers – to link with the fans, to show joy and to acknowledge that they were perhaps a small part of the achievement, having created such an intense atmosphere.
Of course it was Tefera’s right to show no emotion, but when the same athletes, often patronisingly described (or with similar words) as “naive”, want to earn good money in the western world of intense sporting pressure, there comes with that financial reward – and they can be monstrous, particularly when taken back to a third-world nation – the obligation to “play the game”. By that I mean there’s an obligation to engage with the environment, the spectators and media; it’s part of the unwritten deal. I know some smart race organisers write in to their contracts, that “reasonable effort” must be made to accommodate media requests, and there is nothing overly-demanding about that. In fact, it makes eminent sense.
Some might say that by arguing that “athletes from different cultures are entitled to react in just the way they want after a performance”, those who defend Tefera’s lack of reaction, are arguing for the athletes to “have their cake and eat it” on behalf of the performer.
Contrary to this, I believe that if one steps in to a different culture, a different environment, where there is a keenly balanced set of circumstances which can, when things go very well, result in very large financial reward, along with that “step” comes a set of obligations, incorporated effectively into the “agreement”. And part of that agreement is that as an entertainer who is getting paid just to start, one’s behaviour has to tick certain boxes, boxes which if left un-ticked, can result in the sport or that form of entertainment, being detrimentally affected and losing status – which of course in this situation, means losing some fans, and ultimately perhaps losing sponsors, losing TV coverage and losing its place on the sporting ranking ladder.
How is this situation improved? We have to come back to the agents, because they are the ones doing the deals for the athletes: with the meeting organiser – and Tefera, as world indoor champion, will have been on a substantial appearance fee (there was also a published meeting world record bonus of $30,000); the deal with Nike for his shoe contract and their associated world record bonuses; arranged his flights and hotels and other transport; his training venues in Europe and his training set-up back in Ethiopia; his future races indoors (if any) and for the upcoming outdoor season. They effectively control most of what goes on in his life. So it is incumbent on them to teach him what is expected of him when it comes to the sharp end of all this effort, at a race in the “western world”.
First and foremost, must be a great performance, there’s no argument about that, but this is 2019 and a rounded, optimally-profitable performance doesn’t end there; a reigning world champion cannot shrink behind a language barrier, behind “cultural differences” and think their job is done.
I see this too much on the road racing circuit, where all too often, giggling, whispering athletes, usually sadly from East Africa, even with the aid of an interpreter, give virtually nothing at a press conference; no imparting of information in response to simple questions, no willingness to share elements of their lives which would paint so much more colour on to their often bland “running machine” character, no effort to express themselves to keen media, waiting with baited breath and pens poised for any morsel. I’ve started now, at races in India and elsewhere, explaining to the athletes, through an interpreter, why an effort on this issue, is so helpful, and why it ultimately helps us all working in the sport.
Some people will resent me writing this, but it’s too late for diplomatic tip-toeing around issues like this. We all know, or should know, that athletics is under enormous pressure. It’s hard to find sponsors at almost every level; for events, for federations and continental, even global, bodies, for athletes, for websites, for almost every element of the sport in the public spotlight, there is a shortage of sponsors.
So those who make a lot of money out of the sport, and I’m coming back to the agents again, need to step up. I’d love it if the phrase “Tefera Reaction” became a rallying cry for an acknowledgement that something has got to change in this regard, for making all athletes, irrespective of colour or creed, more aware of the bigger picture. The East African athletes, and I’m sorry, but that’s who we’re talking about in the main, have been earning tens of millions for decades, yet still this appalling naivety in front of the media (whoever is to blame) is the norm. I MC’d the press conference of the Ras Al Khaimah Half Marathon recently, chatting to athletes on stage and asking for a few snippets of information. It was, to coin a phrase, like getting blood from a stone – and this happens at race after race. In fact sometimes, extracting that blood would be easier. And it simply cannot go on.
If this angers some of my colleagues in the agency business, then that’s too bad. More effort, more emphasis needs to be put in to educating their charges, in to teaching them just why working WITH western media, not effectively against them, is vital for the health of the sport, the future and the present of the sport.
They also need to be played that one minute or so of BBC tape, when Tefera crosses the line, looking totally non-plussed, neutral, almost comatose and uncomprehending, with not one shred of effort to connect or acknowledge the crowd just a few feet away.
And they need to be told: “This kind of reaction is not good enough. The fans who’ve paid a lot of money, have been entertained by your fabulous performance. But in a small way, they were part of it, as they clapped and cheered you throughout the race and they roared you to the line, and once you’ve crossed the line and your job is largely done, they need to see your emotion, they need to see joy after a win or even a world record, and they need to share the moment with you and not look down on someone who would appear to have just dropped in from a different planet.”