Taking It to the Streets: The Rise of Street Athletics

Taking It to the Streets: The Rise of Street Athletics
  • article date 28 May 2016 by Steve Landells

The rising popularity of "street athletics" has been a shaft of light for a sport mired in crisis in recent times. STEVE LANDELLS takes a look at the concept and whether it can potentially play a part in revitalising athletics here in Australia.

It was not insignificant that Sebastian Coe's manifesto to formally launch his successful bid for the IAAF presidency had the development of street athletics as the core of one of his four pillars.

"We need to be more innovative in how we project and present our sport to the world, both in venue and on screen, and we need to give serious consideration to an IAAF Street Athletics circuit to help reach new audiences," he said as part of his manifesto.

There is little doubt Coe was astutely plugging into a growth area of athletics that is making an increasing noise, particularly in the sport's European heartlands. Several Diamond League events now have a street athletics component attached, with the shot put at Zurich's iconic Weltklasse meeting held at the city's central train station the day before the stadium competition.

In the UK, London staged the 2014 Anniversary Games at Horse Guards Parade by Buckingham Palace, while the Great Run Company annually organise the Great CityGames on the streets of Newcastle and Manchester.
Mainland Europe is awash with high-quality street meets, with the pole vault proving particularly popular.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic in the US, the long-established Fifth Avenue Mile in New York has proved a street athletics classic, and the annual Drake Relays in Des Moines has expanded its repertoire to take events to the city's streets, with the high jump even taking place in a supermarket.

Here in Australia, street athletics has not yet exploded like in other parts of the world, although events such as Darwin's Mitchell St Mile, launched last year, have proved there is an appetite for this form of the sport.
Yet what is certain is that street athletics is coming. The Great Run Company is in negotiations to set up a global Great World CityGames, which it is hoped will be rolled out in 2017, and Australia is keen to stage an event.
"Athletics Australia is keen to have a Great World CityGames event in 2017, and we are working with them with the aim of bringing this to fruition," says Andy Graffin, senior operations manager for the Great Run Company and himself a former Olympic 1500m runner for Great Britain.

We don't know the specific details of the plan, but there is little doubt a street athletics meet down by the Sydney Opera House or along Bourke Street in Melbourne with the world's best athletes would provide an incalculable boost for a sport struggling for publicity in a footy-code-obsessed nation.

Of course, street athletics events are nothing new. The aforementioned Fifth Avenue Mile in New York has been an annual fixture on the athletics calendar since 1981, while Auckland's downhill Queen Street Mile witnessed the fastest mile time in history when Kenyan Mike Boit ran a jaw-dropping 3min 28.3sec back in 1982.
However, with the technology now available to lay down an IAAF-certified track, we have seen a huge growth in sprints and jumps events on the streets over the past decade.

At the forefront of the change has been Brendan Foster, the 1976 Olympic 10,000m bronze medallist and chairman of leading athletics events company Nova (now branded the Great Run Company), which organises a line-up of some of the world's leading running events that is spearheaded by the Great North Run, the world's premier half marathon.

Recognising stadium athletics attendances were dwindling in the late 2000s, Foster made a bold statement: "If fans won't come to athletics in the stadium, we need to take athletics to the fans."

On the back of this, the GreatCity Games was launched on the street of Manchester in May 2009, complete with an IAAF-accredited four-lane track, and saw Usain Bolt blast to a world best time of 14.35sec for the 150m.
Today, the company runs two major Great CityGames events each year in Manchester and Newcastle, with crowds of up to 20,000 people flocking to see the action. Events are broadcast live on TV, with a highlights programme being distributed to more than 170 countries across the globe.

Closer to home, Australian 1500m record holder Ryan Gregson is a huge fan of street athletics. He has twice competed at the Newcastle Great CityGames and believes the concept introduces the sport to a whole new audience.

"I know with a venue like Homebush, it is often a long way from where people live, but an event like the Mitchell Street Mile (in Darwin) takes the show to the public and helps create a new range of fans and spectators," says Gregson.

Leading Australian distance runner Collis Birmingham has also been a regular on the street athletics circuit, having also experienced the Great CityGames in Newcastle and competed in a two-mile race at the Anniversary Games outside Buckingham Palace. He insists the concept can help invigorate interest in athletics.

"Unfortunately, athletics is only popular with the general public in Australia when the Olympic Games or Commonwealth Games come around," he says. "I see street athletics as a great way to showcase our sport to the general public. It may be that we need to change the format of traditional events so that people stop and take notice, but we will always have the track for legitimate performances, so the street events should be fun and create some excitement."

The 2010 Commonwealth discus champion, Benn Harradine, is a fan of innovative throws events such as the Halle Werfertage in Germany. As an attendee at several street athletics meets, he too is a devotee of the concept.
Harradine believes street athletics not only introduces athletics to a new audience but also brings about a whole new experience for the fan due to the close proximity of the spectators to the action - an experience that cannot be replicated in a stadium setting.

"The fans can feel the sweat and the aggression of the athletes at close quarters," he says of the street athletics experience. "They get to understand more about the competition and see it in its wonderment. They can see more clearly how high the pole vaulters are vaulting or how long the long jumpers are jumping, and that brings a whole new medium of enjoyment from the sport."

Birmingham is also hugely impressed by the crowd experience of street athletics and says this should never be undervalued.

"The crowd seem to be in awe of what they are seeing," he explains. "I guess inside the stadium, the crowd are athletics fans; but outside, we are bringing the sport to the public, some of whom may never have seen a sub-four-minute mile or an eight-metre long jump."

Birmingham's coach, Nic Bideau, also supports the concept of showcasing the sport in a different way.
"It is a curiosity thing for the people who are excited to see these superhuman beings compete right in front of their nose," he says.

Many street athletics events have also worked hard on the presentation of their event. The Great Run Company likes meets to be done and dusted in a short and snappy 90-120min timeframe.

There is also the scope to introduce new events to the schedule, with the Great CityGames staging 150m and 200m hurdles events and freshening up the format of several other events to bring about new and interesting talking points.

Another of the successful European-based street athletics innovators is former Austrian decathlete Armin Margreiter, who organises the Golden Fly Series in central Europe.

Events are held on the "Fly Swat" ñ a giant mobile athletics runway chiefly used for pole vault and long jump events ñ with a key element to the competition the rapidity of the action.

"The Golden Fly series concept is based on a breathtaking crossfire competition without any breaks, unlike traditional stadium athletics," says Margreiter. "Elite athletes compete in the pole vault and long jump quickly, one after the other, so the audience can follow the competition close up.

"This makes the whole event very exciting for the audience and attractive for TV - no breaks and no blind spots around the Fly Swat."

Like so many street athletics meets, the Golden Fly Series is free for spectators, allowing people to come and go as they wish; yet as Margreiter explains, the number of spectators who stay on is very encouraging.

"What is interesting is that even passers-by often remain riveted to the spot until the end of the competition," he says. "Youngsters especially seem fascinated by the power and elegance of athletics in the urban environment."

However, two-time Commonwealth Games long jump silver medallist Dave Culbert, who is also the founder of Jump Media ñ a media, promotion and marketing firm ñ is a little more circumspect about what street athletics could potentially do for the sport in Australia or the wider athletics community.

He believes it can be a useful as a promotional vehicle and supports any concept that can take athletics to a greater number people, but he offers a warning.

"I don't think it is the future of athletics or it will shift the needle in any significant way for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is incredibly expensive and it is also very hard to charge admission. Certainly, no national federation, clubs or associations could pay for it. If it is to work, it has to be sponsor driven. The concept is both interesting and exciting, but I think there is more that can be done with the one-day style meetings than hitching your wagon to street competitions as the future of athletics.

"My view is that, in Australia, we don't do enough to engage the casual fan to the track. I think you are much better putting your limited resources into the people who are already interested in the sport to come along rather than someone who has never seen the sport before."

Yet what cannot be disputed is that street athletics is set to play a bigger role within the sport in the future, and the fact the Great Run Company is seeking to place an event here in Australia has to be seen as a positive step for an increasingly troubled sport.

Graffin believes street athletics is also a "fantastic destination tool for many locations" and that this relatively untapped tranche of the sport can have a hugely positive impact.

"The elite athletes engage with the local communities around the event, helping to run athletics taster sessions and all manner of other activities," he says. "This all goes a long way to inspiring the next generation of athletes and athletics fans.

"We feel the opportunities are almost endless and [that] the future of street athletics is an exciting one."

Five Great Street Athletics Meets

Fifth Avenue Mile
Running down Manhattan's Fifth Avenue between East 80th Street and East 60th Street, the event first run in 1981 is one of the world's iconic street miles. A litany of the world's great athletes has won the race, including John Walker, Bernard Lagat, Paula Radcliffe and Jenny Simpson. Australia's
sole triumph in the event came in 2005, when Craig Mottram took victory in a time of 3min 49.9sec ñ the fastest winning time since 1995.

Great CityGames
Often combining a mix of sprints, jumps, hurdles, shot put and road races, the annual events staged in the English cities of Manchester and Newcastle have proved hugely popular with spectators and athletes alike. The competition concept has varied from meet to meet, and 2010 saw Australia taking on England at the Newcastle Great CityGames, with points accrued in each of nine events to determine the overall winner of the two-nation international match.

Golden Fly Series
The Golden Fly Series was dreamed up by former Austrian national coach Armin Margreiter to bring the sport of athletics to some of Europe's most stunning locations. The series highlight is the Golden Roof Challenge in Innsbruck, Austria. All competitions take place on the mobile "Fly Swat", allowing for pole vault and long jump competitions that regularly attract the world's elite.

Berlin Fliegt
The annual meet outside Berlin's iconic Brandenburg Gate has provided some of the sport's iconic images in recent times. Competing in long jump and pole vault in a four-nation event, competitors are restricted to only a certain number of attempts, accelerating the speed of the competition and adding to the drama.

Mitchell Street Mile
Established in 2014, the annual event in the heart of Darwin's CBD is rapidly earning a reputation as Australia's premier street mile. A joint project between Athletics NT and the Northern Territory Government, the event features races for everyone from under 12s to those in fancy dress. This year's event offered a tempting total prize pool of $35,000, and it was Ryan Gregson who scooped the handy $7500 first prize for winning the men's elite race.