Track and field athletes form independent union in response to Diamond League cuts

Triple jump champion Christian Taylor is the president of the new Athletics Association. (Photo by Michael Heiman/Getty Images).

A new union called the Athletics Association has emerged to represent the interests of track and field athletes around the world after widespread changes were made to the format of the Diamond League athletics meetings.

The non-profit organisation has been designed to provide athletes worldwide with independent representation and fight for a greater say in the way the the sport of athletics is run.

It will be led by two-time Olympic and three-time world triple jump champion Christian Taylor while its board boasts other star names from track and field. These include Jamaican sprinter Shally-Ann Fraser-Pryce and UK sprinter and athlete activist Adam Gemili.

Association president Taylor said the impetus for the new organisation came from a decision to remove the 200m, 3,000m steeplechase, discus and his own event, the triple jump, from all of Diamond League events from 2020 onwards.

The changes were made by the Diamond League board, which is separate to the one that governs World Athletics, although World Athletics president Sebastian Coe chairs both bodies.

Coe has said the cuts, which were informed by social media research and surveys into the most popular disciplines with spectators, would lead to a “faster-paced” global league, but they have met with outrage from some athletes.

Taylor told SportBusiness: “That was obviously the catalyst, the last straw that broke the camel’s back. But I want to make it very clear that that is also just one of the things that we’re fighting for. The greatest aim is to be at the table where we actually have a voice and influence.”

A statement from the Athletics Association said its initial objective would be to lobby global governing body World Athletics and Diamond League stakeholders to suggest alternatives to the planned changes and “gain a seat at the table with World Athletics to command real involvement and power when it comes to decision-making in the sport”.

Other objectives include the creation of a welfare charter to highlight a commitment to improving conditions for athletes and the solidification of a membership package, beginning in January 2021, that will offer access to courses on issues such as financial literacy and life after athletics, and also discounts on products.

Political protests

Taylor added that the organisation would also lobby on important issues such as the right for athletes to protest and for a further loosening of restrictions on athlete marketing. He said the need for the IOC to loosen its Rule 50 restrictions on political protests was foremost in many athletes’ minds in light of the global Black Lives Matter movement.

He said: “I would say Rule 50 seems to be more of the focus than Rule 40 at this time. The greatest issue is the human right and the opportunity to speak freely.”

The Athletics Association has also agreed to a strategic partnership with Global Athlete, the start-up movement which aims to inspire greater athlete representation in organisations across the world of sport. The two organisations said they will collaborate on projects, share insights and drive change that will ultimately benefit athletes and sport.

A body said to represent the interests of athletes already exists within the World Athletics’ governance structures after the governing body created an Athletes’ Commission as part of integrity reforms approved in December 2016. Under the 2019 World Athletics Constitution, the chairperson and one other member of the Athletes’ Commission – one male and one female – are full voting members of the World Athletics Council.

The current incumbents, Renaud Lavillenie and Valerie Adams,  were elected to the Athletes’ Commission by almost 1,200 athletes in attendance at last year’s World Championships in Doha.

But Taylor questioned the ability of athletes to truly influence decision making from inside the governing body.

“We were getting a lot of backlash, but also a lot of Commission pressure. People were saying: ‘What’s the purpose of us, if you guys are coming along?’ And I said: ‘we’re grateful that you have the voting power that you have, we’re grateful that World Athletics has considered having internal athlete representation, but the reality is you are not independent. And if you are not independent, you can only hold an organisation to account to a certain level’.”

Strategic errors

Taylor went on to question some of World Athletics’ long-term strategic thinking, including the decision to host the 2019 World Athletics Championships in Doha – an event that was bedevilled by low spectator turn out. He recounted how, when he complained about the location of the event to World Athletics, the governing body protested that it had inherited the decision from former president Lamine Diack who recently stood trial for corruption in France.

He said: “I’m not interested in the blame game; I’m just trying to understand all the thinking and then challenge what we would do differently when the opportunity presents itself.

“Are we still going to partner with the same TV people? Are we still going to be at these locations? Because at London, you can have a four-day meeting and every single day would be sold out.

“The last thing I would say on Doha is it was very frustrating that I had to use a VPN [virtual private network] changer on my computer to actually watch it when I didn’t go to the stadium. I wasn’t actually able to watch coverage of the championships in the host country. How can we talk about growing a sport when those who may not even buy the ticket cannot watch it at home?”

When asked if the new leadership at World Athletics had managed to draw a line under the corruption of the Diack era, Taylor said questions still needed to be asked about his successor Sebastian Coe’s business links and reports of a conflict of interest in his dealings.

In June, The Telegraph reported the CSM Sports and Entertainment group, of which Coe is executive chairman, had been profiting from deals with Dentsu, which owns most of World Athletics commercial rights.

Coe stressed that CSM had never solicited work directly from World Athletics and that he had always abided by the federation’s code of compliance around conflicts of interest.

Taylor said: “This, for me, is the moment when an organisation like the Athletics Association is most important because we can independently hold our governing body to a level of accountability and we can press these matters.”