altBy Martin Gillingham - 10 March 2009

 Sebastian Coe reckons it’s a good idea and “more important than just re-choreographing the deckchairs”.


What the Good Lord is talking about is the new series of Diamond League meetings launched earlier this month by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) which is due to get under way in 2010. It involves at least a dozen meetings around Europe, Asia and the United States that will replace the current mish-mash of Golden League, Grand Prix and Super Grand Prix, and IAAF permit event


My default setting is to offer Coe an unqualified endorsement. He is a persuasive figure, wise and well-connected who wears a plethora of hats to reinforce the point.


Coe appreciates not only what it takes to run a swift half-mile but also a successful commercial track and field spectacular. Despite someone who, along with the equally culpable Steve Ovett, made a career of dodging matches with his No.1 rival, Coe knows only too well the value of top flight head-to-head competition.


Coe claims the new series is the first step and not the golden ticket that will restore athletics to its glittering era of the late Seventies and Eighties. And he’s right. What it does offer though is a new, improved framework within which a more attractive, credible and rejuvenated sport can prosper.


Make no mistake - a two-hour athletics spectacular, keenly packaged with stars at every turn and contests to die for, is sports entertainment at its brilliant best.


But if the Diamond League is to realise its potential and win over its potential audience then a few fundamental building blocks will have to be put in place first.


The first of those should perhaps be constructed around the lower limbs of the anonymous agent quoted in a recent edition of The Times who mischievously hinted that however many binding contracts may be signed and sealed by athletes, agents, meeting promoters and whoever, there is a fail safe, no-repercussions get-out should their prized asset fancy bottling their much hyped head-to-head. “If an athlete wants to dodge someone, then he will develop an injury,” he or she said.


Very encouraging that, very altruistic.


But then perhaps we shouldn’t expect any more. Every agents’ raison d’etre is to protect the best interests of their athletes. So why expect them to pack off their expensive if slightly off-peak charge to a race they feel bound to lose? “Best you develop a sore hamstring,” they would say.


There will be no room for the late withdrawal of marquee names. If a fan buys a ticket to watch Manchester United play Liverpool or the British Lions take on the Springboks then he or she knows that even in the absence of a Rooney or Ronaldo, Williams or Cipriani it will not significantly diminish the occasion. On the other hand, if Usain Bolt goes sick on the eve of his clash with Tyson Gay, the impact on the whole night can be disastrous. 


That said, too many head-to-heads serve to devalue the currency. Less is more ‘n all that. Coe and Ovett were on to something when they relentlessly avoided one another. By doing so, they upped the ante, so much so that when they arrived in Moscow in the summer of 1980 their clash in the Olympic 800m final was the most compelling 1min 45sec of action all year – perhaps the decade.


Had it been their fourth or fifth meeting of the summer then the anticipation would have been greatly reduced.  


I’m also not sure the broad publicity already afforded to the money on offer at these new meetings does anything to enhance the profile. It may look good in track and field terms but these are the days of million dollar first prizes in other sports. Earlier this month, Geoff Ogilvy, a golfer, won $1.4 million (£1 million) in Tucson while Spurs striker Darren Bent earned more for a fruitless afternoon running around at Wembley than an athlete will for winning the entire event series at the 2010 Diamond League. Against its box office rivals, athletics’ prize purses look paltry. So best underplayed. 


There is also athletics’ long-established image problem to counter. The elephant in the room. No prizes this week for guessing which only other athletics story featured prominently in the UK nationals – Dwain’s book. 


There is no doubt the Diamond League offers the chance for athletics to take a significant step forward. But it will only work if agents’ and athletes’ assurances are kept enabling promoters to deliver and the doping scandals cease. If not then Mr Diack, Lord Coe et al might as well pack up and go home.     


Martin Gillingham represented Great Britain in the 1984 Olympic Games and 1987 world championships at the 400m hurdles. Since retiring from the track he spent 12 years in South Africa where he was a radio talk show presenter and writer for a Sunday newspaper. He returned to the UK in 2003 and can now be heard commentating on rugby for Sky Sports, ITV and Setanta as well as athletics for Eurosport. He will be writing regularly for insidethegames.


Martin has always been my favourite athletics commentator and I
don't understand why he isn't on the BBC. He's better than
everyone there by a mile - perhaps they wouldn't appreciate the
"tell it how is" style of commentary he employs on Eurosport.
While the BBC were hailing Marilyn Okoro's run on Sunday as
"brave", Martin was telling it how it was - stupid! Interesting
that later, when interviewed on BBC, Charles van Commenee called
it "unprofessional". It is good to know that Martin will be
writing regularly on insidethegames. It makes an already
unmissable website even more unmissable (if that is possible!).
Keep up the good work Martin.
By Track fan

11 March 2009 at 16:23pm

Charles van Commenee certainly looks like he is not going to
accept the medicority that the BBC are so happy to glory in.
Fasten your seat-belts - it's going to be an interesting ride up
to London 2012!
By Larry Ayre

11 March 2009 at 16:27pm

I agree about Martin. I'm Austrian but always tune into listen to
the English commentary because he is so entertaining.
By Frederick Strausmann

11 March 2009 at 23:32pm

Well done to Dwain Chambers on his 60 metres win at the European
Indoor Championships in Italy. I appreciate his reputation is
tarnished due to his drugs ban but it is obvious he is older and
By Julainne Gannon, Letchworth

13 March 2009 at 10:37am

I do not believe a series like the Diamond League will never work
in a sport like athletics because there is always at least one
event a year that is overwhelmingly the most important of the
season, such as the Olympics, World Championships or European

The sport is not like golf or tennis which has a number of events
which are of equal importance to its players. I am thinking
events like Wimbledon and the US Open in tennis and the Masters
and British Open in golf.

Also, the amount of money that someone like Usain Bolt can make
is determined by their performances in events such as the
Olympics. I bet that the deal the IAAF cuts with Bolt to ensure
his participation in the Diamond League will be worth
considerably more, financially, than what he could win overall in
the series - even if he won all 12 races.

People turn up to athletics to watch the big stars, like Bolt and
Yelena Isinbayeva. That is why it is so important to events like
Zurich and London to have them on the start line and why there
will always be an element of selfishness.

It is not like Formula 1, for example. It would be impossible for
the British Grand Prix to build its event solely around the
participation of Lewis Hamilton because his appearance there
would not matter unless he had competed in the earlier events and
was competing for points. Basically, it only matters that he
races there because it matters in the overall scheme of things.

But if an athlete of the calibre of Bolt runs in Eugene, Zurich
or London people will still turn up to see him irrespective of
how many Diamond League "points" he has.

But I do at least applaud the fact that the IAAF have recognized
that something needs to be done. I really do hope I am proved
By Michael Powell, New York

15 March 2009 at 18:08pm