Few current athletes are as keen to stick their head above the parapet as world 800m silver medallist Nick Symmonds. The US middle-distance star tells SPIKES his big ideas to improve the sport he loves: from alcohol to advertising; and what athletics can learn from the likes of Nascar and tennis.
1. A pint and $5 on Nick Symmonds
"I can only really speak of the US market but I really think alcohol needs to be sold at meets, and also there needs to be gambling. Track is interconnected with the NCAA system [in the US], which does not allow for the sale of alcohol on campus. However, professional track and field in the US needs to be disassociated from amateur track meets.
"If you take a look at most successful US sports like basketball, baseball and football, then alcohol is available at events. As for gambling, if you look at a meeting like Zurich, one of the reasons it is so successful is its on-site gambling.
"Think about track meets. Most are held on an evening after work or a Saturday afternoon when people are on vacation. I’m not saying people need to be shotgunning beers, but to have a beer is a right that people have.
"I don’t like American football much, it is terribly boring, but if I can have a beer in my hand and a $20 bet on the outcome I’m going to sit until the end and enjoy every minute of it.
"Some people might not like track and field that much, but if they have a beer in their hand and $5 on Nick Symmonds: they will have a great time.
"The sport needs to be marketed not just for the diehard fans, but the person who maybe does not generally like track and field: who wants to come to the meeting because it is like attending a good party.”
2. Ad men
"I believe advertising space need to be shared better. The sport has really limited the way that athletes can market themselves. The shoe companies are propping up the professional side of the sport so they need their exposure, I understand that.
"If you are Nike and you make this beautiful outfit for me, I’m not in any way going to detract from the singlet and the jersey and the shoes that you’ve given me. I will never put another logo on the shorts, because you have made them for me. That is fair.
"I also understand the meet directors has space to sell as well, so I’ll proudly wear their bib and they can sell that space to advertisers, and get a return on that.
“Yet I get pissed off when I’m told I can’t put a logo on my skin. I believe it is my right to represent my other sponsors by giving at least a couple of square inches on my shoulders to advertising. This would help the athletes’ income enormously. What we have at the moment is the shoe companies owning a monopoly on advertising space.”
No H8: Symmonds hugs 800m champion Mohammed Aman in Moscow, as bronze medallist Ayanleh Souleiman (left) cuddles up to a giant sparrow.
3. Be more like… Nascar?
"TV coverage of athletics is abysmal. We have some great commentators out there, like Tim Hutchings and Ato Boldon, who are doing a phenomenal job, but they can only add so much flavour to a boring broadcast.
"Races are being screened but no-one really knows the athletes and what’s on the line. I believe we need a split screen or some kind of display that gives the viewers more information.
"Nascar to me is the most boring sport ever, but millions of fans tune in because they know the back stories of the drivers and the stats that the fans are given are amazing. They even tell you what heart-rate the drivers are at.
"It would be really interesting to know that, for example, Galen Rupp’s lactate threshold was 175bpm, however three quarters of the way into his 10,000m race he was still performing at 170bpm. It would be like, wow, this kid hasn’t even touched his lactate threshold yet."
4. Build a crowd
"Track and field has to be true to its roots, and it is important the IAAF are there to set the rules and protect all our events within the sport. Yet when you are talking about Diamond League events – which only really exist to generate income and to pay athletes – we need to think outside the box, like Zurich do with their shot put competition at the train station.
"What about putting on a 100m race or pole vault competition downtown? The New York Diamond League meeting at Randall’s Island has struggled to attract a big crowd, but you can bet the stands would fill up pretty quickly if Usain Bolt raced Mo Farah over 600m – or if Nick Symmonds raced Allyson Felix over 200m.
"It may have nothing to do with how the season is going to unfold, but it is a cool thing that people are going to be curious about."
Fan power: Symmonds is roared onto victory as the US Olympic Trials last year.
5. Major meets
"My long-term vision for the sport of athletics would be similar to tennis, where you have four majors each year. I would pick four cities to host them each year, maybe, Melbourne, Eugene, Zurich and one other, perhaps in Asia.
"It would pay out $100,000 for the win, and with that kind of prize money you can bet that every single athlete is going to drop every single thing that they are doing to train for them.
"The events would be a real spectacle and create as much media attention as the world championships. I would want the events to be for-profit, which would put on the key events that everybody wants to see: like the men’s 100m, women’s 100m and the mile.
"We need to create a product that people want to be a part of. It would be a Saturday and Sunday event, with prelims to set up the finals. It would attract the top eight people in the world.
"It would be like watching one of those great tennis finals between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. The whole world would stop and watch."
And another thing…
"I love track and field. It is a beautiful sport, but people don’t like the way it is being force fed to them right now. I live in Eugene, Oregon and I know 90 per cent of the athletes competing, but when I watched the event [Prefontaine] on TV, I was just counting down the dead time when nothing was happening. I must have watched only 10-15 minutes of the meeting.
"The shame is, we do have a really cool product, which we can make even cooler, but until we make it exciting for the average person, it is only going to be a tiny niche sport. It is not going to reach its full potential."