Athletics is the heart of sport. Whatever sport you most like to watch and to play, it all goes back to track and field – and that’s why athletics always seems to matter more when it’s the central part of a multi-sports event.
We’re always keenest on running and jumping and throwing when these events are surrounded by a garland of other sports – and that’s why the newfangled European Championships might just turn out to be a winner as they unfold over 100 hours of television coverage, in the course of ten days of action.
The athletics will be in Berlin, while a bunch of other Olympic heartland sports, including swimming, gymnastics, rowing, cycling and triathlon, will take place in Scotland, with Glasgow as the main host city – and if that’s slightly awkward, bringing these sports together will give a touch of specialness to each one.
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Athletics is always the centrepiece, because it’s is the basic sport. The only equipment you need is your own body – its origins are primeval: I bet I could run to that tree ahead of you; I bet I could leap that stream and you couldn’t; I bet I could throw that rock further than you.
When other sports take place around athletics, you understand the central role that athletics has in the way we watch and play all of them.
Some purists might prefer to see track and field as a stand-alone event, as has been the case in the past with the European Athletics Championships – but not Paula Radcliffe.
“It actually helps bring a wider focus to all of the sports,” the great British distance runner, who is now a key member of the BBC’s team, tells RT. “Cycling, rowing and golf don’t detract from the athletics at the Olympic Games. They make it more of a celebration of sport in general and that’s what we can look forward to here.”
It’s much harder to win the big medals in athletics than in most other sports, a fact Radcliffe knows all too well. Despite a long and hugely successful career that saw her crowned world champion at the marathon and European champion at 10,000 metres, she never landed Olympic gold.
In athletics the competition is greater: it’s never about two or three top nations and the rest playing catch-up. There are no cheap medals. There have been times when British performers collected medals in wholesale quantities in cycling and rowing, but that can never be the case with athletics.
“The key thing people have to understand is that athletics has 214 member federations around the world,” says Radcliffe. “That gives you an idea of the number of countries competing and the depth of talent in each track and field event. It means it’s that much harder to win a gold medal at a global event. But on the European stage, you’ll still see British athletes produce a very good return of medals.”
Another important thing with track and field is that athletics has been confronting the doping issue for years. Unlike other sports, athletics has always seen doping as a sporting and a moral issue, rather than a public relations or a political problem.
Radcliffe has always been on the front line: “Athletics faced up to the problem head on, acknowledged there was an issue with doping and is seen to be fighting back against it. Cycling is still on that pathway to regaining credibility. Athletics is as well – but we’re further down that path.”
Who will win gold? Radcliffe is tipping Britain’s new sprint star Dina Asher-Smith (main photo) for one gold medal “at least” , and hopes Scot Laura Muir will triumph in the 1500 metres.
It looks like being a great festival of sport: and as always, athletics will be at its heart.