This past few weeks I’ve been to a couple of indoor open meets, to run the 60m. In the wider scheme of things, I’m not that good; while I can be confident of being the fastest person in most non-athletic-related scenarios, it’s unlikely I’ll ever win anything of note – my point is, I’m certainly a long, long way from being world class.
However, while running in London and Birmingham I have not just seen nine out of the ten fastest British sprinters – Mark Lewis-Francis being the notable absentee – this year thus far, but had the opportunity to warm-up with, and even, potentially, race against them. It’s an impressive role call: Harry Aikines-Aryeetey, second fastest over 60m in the UK last year; Leon Baptiste, Commonwealth 200m Gold medallist; Craig Pickering, 2007 4x100m World Championship Bronze medallist; Jodie Williams, 17-years-old and already the fastest woman in Britain; and most impressively, Dwain Chambers, the 2010 European and World 60m Champion.
At the risk of sounding like David Attenborough, it was fascinating to see the world’s best in their natural habitat. The thing that struck me most about Chambers was his utter focus. Chatty, self-aware and easy-going in interview, but utterly ‘in the zone’ on race-day: I never once saw him talk or interact with any of the other athletes and coaches milling around. Bear in mind this was just for the heat, which he cruised in a relatively slow 6.83s, he never let his concentration slip even during this routine qualification for an early-season warm-up. Taking into account the drugs ban that could easily have destabilised Chambers’ career, his obvious dedication left the strongest impression. In contrast was Harry Aikines-Aryeetey, built like a tank and Britain’s number two 60m runner at just 22, who while focused, was far more easy-going.
I digress. All this celebrity spotting made me realise that I could not think of any other sport – let alone major sport – that has such easy access to its best competitors. You, yes you, dear reader, could have entered both Birmingham and London races whatever your time may be, and seen Dwain & Co. doing their stuff. I may be overstating things, everyone had too much respect to pester them (although I suspect for a good number of the other entrants it was nothing new), and there was no interaction, but at the same time imagine being allowed access to Barcelona’s Camp Nou dressing-room, practicing nets next to Graeme Swan and Kevin Pietersen, teeing-off behind Tiger Woods – the list is endless, and all utterly un-feasible. I’ve racked my brains and cannot think of any other sport where unexceptional athletes such as myself can compete against the very best. I may be wrong, but it’s almost impossible to research. As far as I can work out it doesn’t even apply to distance running.
What does this say about sprinting? On the one hand, it is brilliant that the event is so open. I actually qualified for the Birmingham semi-finals by fluke after an admin error meant I was in by far the slowest heat, but was politely asked to defer because I was so inferior to all the other semi-finalists. Had I put my foot down I could have actually raced against Dwain himself, which I find to be a completely insane notion.
However, on the other hand, I feel it says something worrying about the strength and prestige of sprinting in Britain today. Elite sporting events – sprinting or otherwise – should have sufficient strength in depth for the top athletes to compete in invitational-only meets. Other individual sports, such as swimming, have this system, even though Britain is roughly at an equal standard across both events. That said, the majority of the events in the sprinting calendar are invitation only, and the few that are open to the public don’t adversely affect the quality of the top levels of competition.
There is another concerning factor, however, and that is is the audience, or lack thereof. In Birmingham, where Chambers ran, were approximately 200 spectators, most of whom were parents of the younger age-groups. I can’t recall the cost per spectator off-hand, but it was a matter of a few quid, in stark comparison to the recent £100 ticket to see Arsenal play at the Emirates Stadium. And while none of the athletes mentioned earlier – bar Jodie Williams, who really is quite brilliant – have a realistic chance at a medal in 2012, they are still among the best the country has to offer, in a sport considered the blue-riband event at the costliest sporting event in Britain’s history.
From my perspective at least, the unique complexion of sprinting and the close proximity to its stars is a great thing. You may have worked this out already, but it was pretty great to have the chance to watch the guys do their thing. Less great is that not that many people care. Britain will rouse itself in 2012 into paying attention to athletics, and that could be the boost it needs to restore attendance figures, or equally it could be just a bubble amidst general apathy. Either way I had an awesome day.