Large sporting events going to exotic places are big news at the moment – look at the excitement (!)  that the World Cup going to Qatar has caused.  Athletics is already breaking that ground with it’s upcoming jaunt to Korea.  James Sullivan runs a critical eye over things…

It has been a very good few years for track and field with the sport enjoying a resurgence in popularity and media attention. In particular the 2009 World Championships held in Berlin were arguably the best major championships in a long time. Much of all this can be attributed to one man – Jamaican sprinting sensation Usain Bolt. After stunning the world at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing when he set world records for 100m (9.69) and 200m (19.30) he impressed again in Berlin bettering both marks with staggering times of 9.58 and 19.19. Along with his blistering speed he brings a relaxed carefree attitude with him to the track and his pre and post-race humorous antics have attracted numerous new fans to the sport over the last few years. He is possibly now the most recognisable sportsperson on earth. Along with Bolt the 2009 World Championships had another star, the mascot Berlino the Bear. While it may seem odd that such a silly character could be a hero of the championships, he helped bring certain elements back to the sport that have been missing for some time – fun and humour. Nobody will forget this mascot’s playful frolics throughout the nine days of competition and he certainly added to the atmosphere of such a successful event which attracted hefty crowds.

Large crowds in Berlin for 2009 World Championships

Fast forward to January 2011 and the sport’s next big global track event is just eight months away, the location of the 2011 World Championships being Daegu, South Korea. The IAAF’s motive in staging the championships here are obvious, to attempt to penetrate the large Asian market and try grow the sport in this continent. However the choice of location leaves a lot to be desired. While expanding the sport is no doubt hugely important, selecting a nation with very little athletics pedigree, no medal prospects and almost non-existent public interest is hardly the way to go about this.

South Korea has never won a medal at the World Championships since they began back in 1983. In addition the country has claimed just two Olympic medals in track and field since they began competing independently in 1948, with Hwang Young-Cho winning gold in the 1992 Marathon and Lee Bong-Ju taking silver in the same event four years later. What is more astounding is that this nation of approximately 48 million people could only qualify 19 athletes to compete in Berlin two years ago with the best performance being an unremarkable 15th place by Deokhyeon Kim in the men’s long jump. Compare this to Ireland, a small nation, who had three athletes place in the top six in their events and you can see just how insignificant the sport is in Korea.

The worry is that without any significant contribution from the Korean athletes the championships may not generate enough interest among the residents of Daegu. There is a precedent to such concerns with the 2007 World Championships held in Osaka, Japan attracting poor crowds. The Japanese team (who are far stronger than Korea let’s not forget) had a very poor championships, winning just one solitary bronze medal, something which had a knock on effect with regards attendances resulting in the likes of Tyson Gay and Carolina Kluft performing in front of a half empty stadium. With the Korean athletes lacking the talent to challenge for medals, unlike their German predecessors two years ago, there is a serious possibility that the event may not gather enough momentum in Daegu and yet again the best athletes in the world will be competing in front of empty seats. Such a possible eventuality will do little to build on the good exposure the sport has gained over the last few years.

One of the venues that Daegu beat in the bidding process for the championships was Brisbane, Australia, a city which I believe would have been a better choice in hosting such a great event. The Australian people are renowned for being passionate about sport and with the Sydney Olympics in 2000 and the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne attracting enormous crowds there certainly would not be any reason to worry about poor attendances. Furthermore Australia has a number of top class athletes with the likes of Nathan Deakes, Jana Rawlinson, Sally Pearson, Steven Hooker, Jarad Tallent, Dani Samuels, Mitchell Watt and the Men’s 4x400m Relay team all claiming World or Olympic medals over the past few years. Such talent would help to ensure local interest and build an atmosphere, aspects which are crucial to a successful championship. Finally the IAAF has never held its marquee event in Australia (nor any other part of the Southern Hemisphere for that matter) so staging the event in Brisbane would have helped grow the sport in a country that is usually starved of top class athletics meets while at the same time allowed track and field to build on its recent revival, media attention and high attendances.

It remains to be seen whether the Korean gamble will pay off. For the good of the sport let’s hope my fears are unfounded.

One thought on “Going East a risky move

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