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Leadership: Interview with Essar Gabriel of the IAAF

IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations) general secretary Essar Gabriel gives Owen Evans his take on the stormy build up to the 2013 World Championships, and what commercial opportunities exist for other IAAF events.

Russian president Vladimir Putin's response to his detractors after Kazan's hosting of the World University Games a few weeks ago was simple: “Do sport or take Viagra.”

It's a novel way to deal with your critics. Putin's Russia drew skepticism for flooding the student event with top-level athletes in order to boost its medal count.

However, not everyone is as bullish with the international media as the Russian president, and negative publicity has been an ongoing theme in the weeks leading up to this month’s IAAF World Championships in Moscow on August 10-18.

First of all, many of the stars from last summer's Olympics will not be competing in the Luzhniki Stadium, including injury victims David Rudisha, 800-metres world record-holder, and Jamaican sprint star Yohan Blake. Doubts also remain over Britain's Jessica Ennis-Hill being on the flight to the Russian capital.

However, a more disturbing reason for athlete absentees will be doping, with Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell – the second and fourth fastest men of all time – both testing positive last month. And with Gay, Powell and Blake out of the running, it looks more and more likely that the IAAF will have a convicted drugs cheat, Justin Gatlin, on the podium in Moscow following his win in Monaco last month.

The worry for the IAAF is the potential kickback to the commercial appeal of the World Championships – which was previously reported to amount to almost 90 per cent of their income. It didn’t take long, after all, for adidas and Li Ning to free Gay and Powell from their respective endorsement contracts.

“This not only a question of commercial appeal,” Gabriel told SportBusiness International. “It is a question of what we stand for throughout 100 years of history. This is about promoting and fighting for two of the six core values of the IAAF: integrity and solidarity.

“The IAAF has long been at the forefront of the fight against doping and we have the most advanced and most extensive all-year-round anti-doping programme. It comes at a cost in the short term, but fundamentally in the longer term, our commercial appeal is built on our values that all within our athletics family have to respect or else be excluded. Our commercial partners understand that and encourage us in this respect.”

Aside from the doping controversies, there is yet another threat to the World Championships in the form of an ever increasing portfolio of events clogging up the sporting calendar. While it looks as though athletics will not feature in the inaugural European Games in Baku in 2015, there is already next year's Commonwealth Games in Glasgow as well as the proposed United World Championships that could begin in 2017. And there is still the small matter of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio.

With the calendar seemingly bursting at the seams, is there a danger that the IAAF's biggest money-spinner could simply get lost in the crowd? 


“It is certainly an issue and the IAAF has voiced its concern in the discussion and debate initiated by the IOC (International Olympic Committee) with ASOIF (the Association of Summer Olympic International Federations) and ANOC (the Association of national Olympic committees),” says Gabriel.

“The sports calendar is more and more crowded, with events coming from continental associations, national Olympic committees, or other entities, like SportAccord, rather than international federations.

“As members of the international sporting and Olympic family, we have to be careful and to look into those developments with great attention, so that they do not overall reduce the total value of what is on offer.

“With regards to the IAAF World Championships themselves, they were inaugurated 30 years ago and are a premium global event which reaches an audience of billions. This year it will be the largest sporting event in the world. So, there is no impact on their value, but certainly with regards to other smaller events which are ours, that is something that we should be careful about.”

Forging an alliance

While the doping and added competition points towards a challenging future for athletics, it’s not all doom and gloom, and Gabriel believes social media and creating an alliance with the global running community are two ways to create a brighter future for the sport.

“Engagement is the key word,” he says. “What we are working on is how to better engage with younger audiences, not only during the event, but also before and after.

“Last year, we launched a totally revamped website in conjunction with an array of social media platforms. In terms of content, we must do a better job on putting forward, on the web, the great athletes of our sport who are not only very articulate but are very approachable. That’s a credit to the universality and value of our sport.”

“Engagement is also about social responsibility. As demonstrated through the continuous growth of the road running community, our sport has a role to play in the area of physical activity and a healthy lifestyle for all.

“A concrete example is the addition, in Beijing at the 2015 World Championships, of a 10-kilometre mass start race on the marathon course which will look to link together, in a festive and tangible manner, the road running community and our elite track-and-field athletes.

“Beyond the World Championships, other initiatives also participate to enhancing the overall value of what we are proposing to commercial partners and rights-holders. These include the newly-created World Relays event that will take place in Nassau, Bahamas in 2014.”

Gabriel says at the 2014 World Half Marathon, which has been highlighted for commercial opportunities, there will also a mass start. The event next March in Copenhagen attracted 18,000 registrations in just three hours, with each registration costing $100.

The IAAF is also looking to continuing to sell commercial partnerships around its annual Diamond League series, with a title sponsorship still yet to be sold.

“The IAAF does indeed rely on the World Championships, this is clear, but we also have other financial sources, like from Olympic revenue,” Gabriel says. “We also have seven official IAAF partners, which are great worldwide brands. Canon is the latest and we are currently looking to sign one or two other worldwide partners.”

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