Academic journal article World History Bulletin

A Late but Lucrative Sporting Mega-Event: The World Championships of the International Association of Athletics Federations

Academic journal article World History Bulletin

A Late but Lucrative Sporting Mega-Event: The World Championships of the International Association of Athletics Federations

Article excerpt

In August 1983, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) became one of the last international sports federations to introduce World Championships for its sports. Therewith, it created its showpiece competition as a sporting mega-event almost a century after Pierre de Coubertin had introduced his idea for modern Olympic Games. The inaugural edition of the IAAF World Championships, held in Finland's capital Helsinki, saw 1,355 athletes competing in 41 events. In the following decades, the event developed into a global sporting mega-event, attracting more than 50,000 daily spectators in giant athletics stadia and large television audiences in over 200 territories.

Until the early 1980s, the IAAF had considered the athletics events at the Olympic Games to be the crowning of world champions in its sports as it had amateur-based roots. Moreover, there had always been close links between the IAAF and the International Olympic Committee (IOC), personified through the first two IAAF presidencies that together lasted for 63 years. (1) However, when the second IAAF President David Cecil Brownlow, Lord Burghley (Great Britain, in office 1946-1976) retired in July 1976 and Adriaan Paulen (The Netherlands, in office 1976-1981) took the helm, such links vanished. Moreover, international sports found itself in a period of change increasingly open for the processes of commercialization and professionalization due to the IOC's liberalization of its amateur regulations at the end of the 1970s. (2)

Against this background, this essay argues that the IAAF World Championships, one of the biggest global sporting mega-events, was introduced predominantly on commercial grounds. Until today, such close associations between the event and the IAAF's financial interests are evident and have contributed negatively to the Federation's conceptualizations in recent years due to corruption, doping and bribery scandals.


The IAAF Council discussed the idea of their own international athletics event for the first time in 1975 towards the very end of David Burghley's presidency. The majority of the IAAF Council members wished to raise the profile of the Federation and intended to adapt to an evolving event-culture in sports. However, the leading IAAF figures were aware that the installation of an international athletics event entailed the specific danger of potential conflicts with the IOC: its main source of income was its share of the IOC's television rights of the Olympic Games. (3) In particular, the conservative David Burghley warned about such negative consequences. Hence, the IAAF Council proposed staging a World Cup for continental teams instead of individuals. (4) This event format allowed them to explore the possibility of generating revenue through an international athletics event whilst ensuring that there was still a considerable difference from World Championships. These would remain the Olympic Games for the time being, but it is evident that commercially driven arguments were beginning to be exchanged. Henceforth, the Federation openly communicated objectives relating to the generation of revenue through the IAAF World Cup:

'(...) finally, to provide a much-needed source of revenue to be distributed among participating teams and Area Group Associations as well as the IAAF.' (5)

This can also be seen within the immediate subsequent discussions about the distribution of the money and the IAAF Council's great interest in holding talks with television broadcasters and sponsors. (6) Clearly, commercial reasons were as much a key factor in the establishment of the event as the creation of an international athletics competition for leading athletes.

The IAAF Council selected Dusseldorf (West Germany) as the host city for the initial 1977 World Cup. (7) The decision on the participating teams and their appearance constituted an important element of distinction from what could be considered World Championships and the Olympic Games. …

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