The Berlin 2018 European Athletics Championships was an outstanding advertisement for athletics. But why was that and why did our sport win so many new fans and admirers this summer? And what can athletics learn from it for the future?
"I confess, my long-gone love for athletics has been re-ignited." said reporter Walter Straten in German newspaper BILD after the climax of the European Championships. And this feeling was widely shared. In total, more than 43 million viewers watched at least one broadcast of the inaugural multi-sport European Championships staged between Berlin and Glasgow.
On the last day of the Championships, athletics kept up closely with football: 5.44 million spectators watched Bayern Munich triumph 5-0 over Eintracht Frankfurt on one German channel ZDF. At the same time, 5.16 million watched Gesa Felicitas Krause defend her European 3000m steeplechase title on ARD.
Berlin 2018 is increasingly seen as a model for sporting events of the future to follow and the Championships has already been honoured with awards such as the Prize for Fairness and Olympic Values of the Deutsche Olympische Gesellschaft (German Olympic Society)
"These European Championships radiated a very special atmosphere through many things. This event was backed by a highly committed team, which put the athletes at the centre of its actions in every aspect," said the German Olympic Society on bestowing the championships with that accolade.
— Team Deutschland (@TeamD) August 12, 2018
Fairness, joy, authenticity
But what exactly are the "many things?" It is worth taking a close look at the success factors. "Fairness, joy, authenticity. That's what we love about sport," wrote Straten in BILD and provided evidence for his enthusiasm.
Fairness. The Belarusian high jumper Maksim Nedasekau claps to the rhythm of the fans as his German competitor Mateusz Przybylko leaps over 2.35m to clinch the gold medal ahead of him.
Joy. European long jump champion Malaika Mihambo invited the silver medallist from Ukraine Maryna Bekh and the bronze medallist from Great Britain Shara Proctor to celebrate their successes together on their victory lap.
Authenticity. In front of the TV microphones, the athletes were genuine and ebullient. “When I understood that I had won the European Championships, I lay on the ground and cried like a little baby,” said Przybylko.
New sporting heroes emerge
Coincidence or strategy? To identify the successes of the European Championships, you have to go back three years.
The concept for the event was already developed in 2015 with the early ticket availability immediately after the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
The European Championships might have suffered from a lack of exposure in the build-up due to the World Cup in Russia but the poor performance of the German national team created space for new sporting heroes to emerge. And Berlin provided them.
The German team there delivered their best performance collectively since the Munich 2002 European Athletics Championships and they reaped their second best ever medal haul after Budapest 1998.
No less important was the chronology of the German successes.
Starting with David Storl in the shot put qualification, Gina Lückenkemper's silver medal on the first evening in the 100m, Arthur Abele’s decathlon gold on the next evening through to Krause’s win in the steeplechase, the timetable had already been developed at the beginning of 2016 in coordination with German head coach Idriss Gonschinska to ensure there would be strong German representation in each evening session.
— European Athletics (@EuroAthletics) August 12, 2018
Revolutionary schedule and communications
Another of the great successes was the schedule with each evening session held in a two or three-hour time-slot featuring multiple finals. The wider European Championships programme - which Berlin 2018 was a key part of - made it essential to tighten the schedule to accommodate stakeholders’ demands.
In order to achieve this, day ‘Q’ was dedicated solely to heats and qualifying events. The evening sessions were also collectively shortened by six hours by staging the majority of medal ceremonies at the European Mile in the Breitscheidplatz in the centre of the city as opposed to the traditional venue of the main stadium.
None of the disciplines were shortened, changed or eliminated, but a new kind of athletics was created.
Spectators were able to follow all of the events in the stadium thanks to the cutting edge event presentation.
The athletes also received their medals in an innovative environment at the European Mile in front of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. The temporary stands held 8000 spectators and the fans were able to high-five medal winners as they made their way onto the medal podium.
This concept came from the 2009 World Championships in Berlin where both the men’s and women’s marathon started and finished outside the main stadium for the first time. Berlin 2018 extended this concept by staging the men’s shot put qualifying at the European Mile.
The communication concept, which was consistently rolled out digitally and cross-media for two years always focused on the athletes, making it possible to greatly increase the level of awareness of the championships but above all enabling a special proximity to individual athletes at an early stage.
Likewise, comprehensive cooperation with the German Sports Aid Foundation and the German Football League and an individual Donald Duck story with the Walt-Disney publishing house served towards one big goal: to make Berlin 2018 unforgettable.
Frank Kowalski, CEO of Berlin 2018 puts the big message in a nutshell. "Athletics doesn't have to be changed at its core by setting new rules, it is already is a strong product if presented professionally and, above all, in a way that is appealing to the spectators."
Translated from an article by Jörg Ulrich Hahn.