IAAF: We haven't reneged on commitment to invest in Nitro Athletics
By Callum Murray
The IAAF, track and field’s world governing body, has played down suggestions that the future of the innovative Nitro Athletics concept could be under threat, denying claims that it has reneged on an undertaking to invest in the nascent series.
Nitro Athletics, which is backed by the now-retired Jamaican sprint superstar Usain Bolt and seeks to refresh track and field through the introduction of non-traditional formats and staging, appeared to be on course to establish itself as a regular international series after the inaugural event in Melbourne in February was enthusiastically received.
At the time, Olivier Gers, the IAAF’s chief executive, said of the series, which was the brainchild of former 400-metres runner John Steffensen and national governing body Athletics Australia, and in which Bolt holds an equity stake: “We will invest in Nitro and roll it out around the world.”
To date, that investment has not been forthcoming, but the IAAF told Sportcal that it is “still the plan. It is an exciting and innovative format which we can encourage, together with new formats from other member federations.”
The IAAF is reported to have concerns over spending money on supporting an initiative so closely associated with a single national federation.
However, the international governing body denied that it had reneged on an agreement, saying: “The MOU was signed to enable us to review the financials and forward projections and plans. Our discussions with Athletics Australia are continuing based on the information provided.”
Athletics Australia told Sportcal that it “continues to work closely with the IAAF and Usain Bolt on developing a global Nitro Athletics Series and the concept has received official sanctioning by the IAAF for future events.”In March, Gers said: “What we saw in Melbourne was not a revolution for track and field. We are still about high performance and world records. This was innovation…
“The challenge for our sport is to ensure the in-stadia experience is as strong as the at-home experience. That has not always been the case in track and field.”
The competition in Australia pitched six teams (Bolt’s All Stars, England, China, Japan, Australia and New Zealand) of 24 athletes participating in non-traditional events, such as 150-metre sprints, a three-minute distance challenge, mixed gender relays and hurdles relays.
Teams could call in a bonus round to double their points tally from an event, while penalty points were imposed for false starts.
Despite the perceived success of the inaugural event, Nitro, which is run as a subsidiary company of Athletics Australia, is reported to have lost A$1.8 million ($1.4 million), out of funding contributed by the state government and broadcaster Seven Network. Kerry Stokes, Seven’s owner, also spent A$1 million of his own money, according to The Age newspaper, albeit that loss has been translated into an equity stake in Nitro.
The IAAF has offered to take a small equity stake itself, along with sanctioning future Nitro events, the newspaper reported, but this is less of a commitment than the organisers had initially expected from the governing body.
Darren Gocher, Athletics Australia’s chief executive, said that the series is not dead, but faces significant hurdles. He told the newspaper: “It's unlikely it [a follow-up event] will be in the first half of next year so then you are looking at the end of next year and there is a matter of the turnaround to the year after. If it is a series, then that will not happen until early 2019.
“What we are looking at and most partners are looking at is a series. It makes a lot more sense to be an international series across countries rather than just one country.”
Such a series could take in Australia, Asia, USA or Europe, the newspaper, reported, but Gocher added: “We need enough lead time to do it properly in organising an international series and fitting in with the athletics calendar and different countries.
“I would imagine in the first year we would look at staging across three [countries]. Ideally you would have more than that. Some of it will come down to where it fits in to be able to run it across three or four consecutive weeks or spread out across the season.”
The organisers had expected a warm reception from the IAAF after Sebastian Coe, the federation’s president, stressed the need for innovation in his manifesto ahead of his election in August 2015, saying: “Our sport is still strong. But everyone knows it’s hard to persuade young people to join us. That’s the big challenge. We’re going to have to be imaginative.”