Athletics is becoming a mass participation sport. At the Berlin Marathon this weekend, amateurs ran alongside world-class athletes. Was this always the intention?
Athletics is far more than just competitions in a stadium. There are opportunities for many people. Athletics is universal. The countries affiliated to International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) currently stands at 214, and 51 European countries are members of European Athletics.
The story of athletics is special. It’s a story of progress over the years. There has been progress not only in terms of equality between the genders, but also in the events themselves. Athletics is not confined to the stadium, but something that’s happening in our parks, forests and public spaces.
Authorities now understand this progress. In Europe, we’re implementing the twin-pillar strategy of elite performance on the one hand and mass participation on the other. So yes, the Berlin Marathon is one of many examples in running where both world class athletes and grassroots runners take part in the same event.
One of the challenges in promoting sport and physical activity is ensuring equal access to sporting infrastructure. What do you think? Are there enough stadiums dedicated to athletics?
It’s true that most stadiums in Europe are owned by local and city authorities. The financing and operational costs of multi-sport stadiums without individual ownership is not always easy in today’s environment. We’re trying to ensure that we collaborate better with local councils to allow access to stadiums and find sustainable solutions for their operations.
And although we need stadiums, we can also practice outside the stadiums. We want to expand our reach and our presence through events such as trail, mountain running and cross-country activities, and even fun runs like colour runs and mud runs. Athletics really is broadening its reach and impact.
Why is it that live sport is more popular than ever but Europeans are much less physically active?
I agree: we’re fighting against an inactivity crisis. However, we’re committed to explaining to people how important it is nowadays to be active, and athletics offers plenty of possibilities. We’re also promoting the social benefits of sports. Sport is a tool against discrimination. It can promote integration and bridge gaps between people. In today’s world, with all the challenges we currently face, this is critically important.
This is one of the really encouraging things about the #BeActive project: it’s attracting mass participation. What we’re doing with #BeActive really shows that athletics is a mass participation sport that is accessible to all.
The European Week of Sport is now the world’s largest campaign for promoting sport and physical activity. How important is government action for encouraging people to get involved in sports?
Sport institutions and governments rely on each other when it comes to promoting grassroots sport. We need them and they need us to address the health problems we face as a society. Together, we need to find ways to make sport appeal to a wider audience. We must do this together, through even better and closer collaboration. The Week of Sport carries this idea forward by connecting governments and sport institutions.
The European Commission has just launched the Tartu Call for a Healthy Lifestyle, which says that inactivity is more prevalent amongst the less privileged. How can we turn the trend around and what can athletics offer them?
I fully agree with this, and we’re developing actions to offer opportunities to everybody regardless of their social background. With athletics, we don’t always need big investments for that. Take running, for example: you only need a pair of shoes and somewhere to run.
I also believe that one of the biggest challenges is changing people’s mindset and making them realise that everyone can benefit from sports. It’s our responsibility to reach out to people wherever they are — in schools, workplaces and their local communities — and convince them that athletics offers a good way to #BeActive.
Finally, what is your vision for the European Week of Sport in five years’ time?
I think that we’re on the right track: the good work should continue. We should focus not only on September 23-30, but on the entire year. For a lasting #BeActive legacy, we should emphasise activities happening before and after the European Week of Sport in September. In athletics, we can do that.
Jean Gracia is the Vice-President of European Athletics, the governing body for athletics in Europe.