By Tim Groves
Athletics has almost become a dirty word in recent months, the whole sport tarnished by a drugs scandal. But scratch a little deeper beneath the surface in the UK and you’ll find a different picture.
At elite level, the second best athletics nation at the past three Olympic Games has been accused of running a doping programme so far reaching and deeply entrenched that it received state support and involved the destruction of as many as 1,400 samples.
Russian athletics is in turmoil and has been discredited to such an extent that it is difficult to see how it can recover. At the very highest level, the gold and bronze medallists from the 800 metres at London 2012, Mariya Savinova and Ekaterina Poistogova, are at the centre of things, while Russia has been labelled the “blood testing epicentre of the world”.
The biggest country in the world, it appears, is the biggest culprit, but while it’s attracting almost all the headlines, many other nations and individuals are under suspicion as well. The original evidence exposed by German broadcaster ARD/WDR and The Sunday Times suggested as many as 146 medals, including 55 golds, in endurance events at the Olympics and World Championships between 2001 and 2012 were won by athletes who have suspicious test results.
That’s a third of all the medals won during that period. As many as 80 per cent of Russia’s medals during that time were won by athletes now under suspicion.
However, 800 of the 5,000 athletes from all over the world whose tests were scrutinised had results that were reportedly “highly suggestive of doping or at the very least abnormal”, with 18 Kenyan medals won by athletes under suspicion and seven British athletes implicated as well.
A global problem has left huge question marks hanging over the sport and will require a sizeable clean-up operation. Britain will need to play its part, but all is far from lost for athletics in this country.
London 2012 was the most successful Olympic Games for Team GB since 1996 in terms of the overall medal count (six) and since 1908 in terms of gold medals (four) when it comes to athletics and there is another Olympics in Rio to focus the minds.
However, it’s the grass roots level in this country that can provide the most encouragement and perhaps the biggest sense of pride for the troubled sport.
During the 12 months to March 2015, more than 2.2 million people over the age of 16 regularly took part in athletics for at least 30 minutes each week. That figure is up by 328,100 on the 12 months between October 2010 and October 2011.
The 17 per cent rise makes it the fastest growing sport in the country over the past five years - a better rate of growth than cycling, which is often held up as the shining light for success and participation, despite its own image problems at elite level.
The rise in participation over the past decade has been even greater - 873,700 more people taking part in athletics since 2005. That’s more than double cycling’s 374,100 increase. An increase of over 64 per cent in just a decade seems almost meteoric.
Set that against a backdrop of falling sports participation figures in recent years - the overall number of people playing sport once a week has dropped from 15.9 million since the 2012 Olympics to 15.5 million in 2015 - and athletics’ achievement looks even better.
With a 45 per cent rise, table tennis has recorded the next biggest participation increase in the UK over the past decade, but that was starting from a much lower base. The number of people taking part has risen by 31,600 in total.
Not all the rise in athletics participation is down to people running in the park or participating in a more casual sense either, with track and field participation showing similar increases and the number of members registered with UK Athletics reaching around 135,000 in 2014/15 - another 2,000 people have joined since the high watermark of a home Olympics.
At the top level, Great Britain’s Olympic and Paralympic athletes will receive a 29 per cent boost in funding over the next five years through UK Sport, as a result of Chancellor George Osborne’s autumn statement, but Sport England’s much smaller £2.6 million increase means there may not be as much of a financial boost for grass roots athletics in the near future.
Clearly, role models at the highest level of the sport, such as Jessica Ennis-Hill, Mo Farah and Greg Rutherford, have had an impact in terms of inspiring more people to take up athletics, but hard work at grass roots level is paying off too.
There are concerns from within athletics that it is losing too many talented youngsters to other sports - a problem increased funding may be able to help alleviate - but the participation figures suggest athletics is in good shape in the UK.
Tessa Jowell, the former Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and Olympics Minister, thinks that hosting the 2017 World Athletics Championships in London represents a second chance to “promise every child the chance to become an athlete” after criticisms of the lack of a meaningful legacy following London 2012.
The event may be just what the sport in this country needs. It has a global image crisis to overcome first, but the figures suggest if it can weather the storm and continue to increase participation at the rate it has done in the recent past and cultivate its young talent just as well, the future of British athletics will be a bright one.
Picture courtesy of Sport England