African athletics fears changes are bad news
Nairobi: Kenyans and Ethiopians dominated the distance races at the last World Athletics Final at the weekend but Africans fear they are in danger of becoming irrelevant in the sport despite the depth of their talent.
Changes to the athletics calendar, which the ruling body say will make the sport more attractive, have not been well received on the world`s poorest continent.
Under the new plan, the World Cross Country Championships are being turned from an annual event into a biennial one. Television sponsors had lost interest in the event because it was always won by Kenyan or Ethiopian runners, International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) President Lamine Diack said.
"The World Cross Country championships have become not only an African affair but an East African affair, and these days you don`t even get athletes from West Africa competing," Diack said last month.
The senior men`s team races at the championships have been won by Ethiopia or Kenya every year since 1981. On the women`s side, only Portugal, in 1994, have interrupted an African run of victories going back 18 years.
Former champion Paul Tergat said the decision was unfair.
"This is contrary to the universal appeal of sport as a unifying factor, as a forum for athletes from all over the whole world to showcase their talent, regardless of race, religion or status," Tergat, who won the men`s senior title between 1985 and 1989, told reporters.
"Giving such a reason for making such an unpopular decision is not fair to African athletes whose only fault is to work hard to win those titles. That is killing the spirit of sport."
The World Athletics Finals -- held last weekend over two days in the Greek city of Thessaloniki -- are being replaced under a new format that has created a Diamond League to be held in Asia, Europe and the United States. Africa will not host any events.
Next year, the series finals will be split over two weekends with half the events being contested in Zurich and half in Brussels.
Thessaloniki was a triumph for African runners who won every distance event. Of the 12 qualifiers in the men`s 5,000-metres final, nine were Kenyans and three, including winner Imane Merga, were from Ethiopia.
The World Cup, a competition between continents, has been redesigned to merge Asia with Oceania as one team and North, Central and South America as another team. Africa and Europe are the only continents which will compete independently.
Pierre Weiss, general secretary of IAAF, said the changes would enhance the global appeal of athletics.
"This new (Diamond) League replaces the Golden League by meeting a strategic goal of the IAAF, notably enhancing the worldwide appeal of athletics, by going outside Europe."
League events will be held, from May to August, in Doha, Shanghai, Oslo, Rome, New York, Eugene, Lausanne, Gateshead, Paris, Monaco, Stockholm and London.
"With the new (World Cup) structure we hope to achieve a more competitive format. Merging Asia with Oceania is also to strengthen the participation of both continents," said Weiss.
Kenyan IAAF Council member Isaiah Kiplagat said Africa needed to take a hard look at the future of its athletes and draw up a strategic plan to deal with the changes in the sport.
"Television sponsorship is becoming more Euro-centric, hence the change of World Cross Country Championships from an annual to biennial event," said Kiplagat. "Events that are popular in Africa like steeplechase don`t feature in the money circuit programme as often as the sprints and field events."
"We used to have IAAF Cross Challenge series where cross country runners accrued points towards winning grand prizes. Now the World Cross Country has become biennial. It could go altogether because many delegates think it was a mockery of competition and its winners would easily be predicted."
He said it was not the fault of Africans that they dominated cross-country, just proof of their talent.
Tergat called for more appreciation of cross-country running.
"This is the sport where one tackles hills, mud, obstacles and virtually everything. We thought it could be included in the Olympic Games programme soon," the 40-year-old Kenyan said.
"Cross-country is one of the most spectacular sports. Track and road runners launch their careers there. The reasons given are not in the best interest of sports."
Dube Jillo, technical director of the Ethiopian Athletics Federation, agreed and said he felt "the utter disappointment of not just Ethiopia but the entire eastern African region".
"We`re not happy at all. This will affect our athletes seriously. We are very disappointed by the IAAF because World Cross Country Championships is one of the most important events for our runners," Jillo said by telephone from Addis Ababa.
Kiplagat said that for Africa to remain relevant in athletics, its people needed to make the sport as lucrative as it was elsewhere.
"With big television companies like (South Africa`s) Supersport, our own companies must appreciate the value of Africa`s great potential and invest in the sport," he said.
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