The inaugural Athletes Forum was held on the first day of the 2020 European Athletics e-Convention and nearly 200 athletes took part in a stimulating, thought-provoking and varied programme.
The first session of the Athletes Forum focused on careers away from athletics with 2011 world 1500m silver medallist Hannah England and World Athletics CEO Jon Ridgeon, a world medallist at the 1987 World Championships, imparting their wisdom.
For both athletes, the watchword was planning. “Just plan. Plan in a nice, calm environment. Don’t leave it until you are forced out of the arena. You will thank yourself for it in the long run,” said England, who is part of the European Athletics Athletes Committee.
England also shared her experiences of making the use of her downtime to facilitate the transition to life after athletics by shadowing the Local Organising Committee in the build-up to the 2018 World Indoor Championships in Birmingham. This was a useful exercise in finding out which roles might be suited to her post-athletics as well as being able to rule out other areas.
For Ridgeon, he emphasised that a career after athletics can be just as stimulating as life as a professional athlete. “Don’t leave it to chance. You are retired for many more years than you are an active athlete...there is life after athletics which is just as exciting and fulfilling as being a professional athlete,” he said.
Ridgeon began to give serious thought to his life after athletics after sustaining a career-ending Achilles injury while on a training camp Australia. “As well as mope, I tried to plan the next phase of my life,” he said.
Like England, Ridgeon talked about the importance of volunteering - as well as taking on paid roles - to expand your skill-set as well as finding a mentor, networking, being open-minded and talking to experts. “Don’t be afraid to ask for advice,” he said. “Ninety nine percent of the time people are hugely willing to give advice.”
England also highlighted how combining part-time or full-time work doesn’t have to be a negative or impactful to a career as a high performing athlete.
“The positives of being a dual career athlete aren’t emphasised enough. Financial stability can be a positive and it can offer balance. Sport is stressful and doesn’t always go to plan. It can add balance,” she said.
In the second workshop, European Athletics Head of Communications Rob Faulkner presented on the relationship between social media and personal branding with reigning Olympic and European javelin champion Thomas Rohler using his own personal experiences to enrich the topic.
“I had a huge motivation to do more than just throw a javelin far,” said Rohler on building his brand and image to establish a reach beyond athletics.
Rohler said the cultivation of his personal brand isn’t a solo effort and he has drawn on a team around him - not necessarily professionals but training partners, friends as well as his coach - which has helped him immensely with his social media presence.
"Grow a team around you if you want to have that beautiful social media strategy: content, scheduling, partners. There is a huge amount of work to do," he said.
He also said listening to young athletes in his training group was also beneficial in picking up new social media trends and platforms. “The youth drives trends,” he said.
Rohler also talked about the importance of being authentic on social media, not being afraid to say ‘no’ to brands which might not enhance your image and how being consistent with his posting on social media has helped with his brand.
Sport in the times of the coronavirus pandemic
The afternoon session was focused largely on the pertinent topic of coronavirus, the challenges of staging international events amid the ongoing pandemic as well as the necessary measures and solutions to ensure the safety of athletes.
The session began with a thorough overview of the current global coronavirus situation from Dr. Kingston Mills, a former Irish marathon runner who now works in immunology. He also focused on the coronavirus situation in Poland with a view to the Toruń 2021 European Athletics Indoor Championships from 5-7 March.
The topic of Toruń 2021 was expanded upon by Pedro Blanco, the Chair of the European Athletics Medical and Anti-Doping Commission. He spoke on how reduced crowds, a reduction of team members, ITOs and officials are all likely measures which would need to be implemented to achieve a safe environment for the participating athletes along with a stringent testing protocol.
European Athletics Vice President Cherry Alexander also gave an update on the sanitary and safety plan which is being devised for Toruń. This is being shaped by the evolution of the pandemic and by taking into consideration the prevailing governmental regulations and travel restrictions.
The sanitary plan includes a strict four bubble system as well as the mandatory wearing of masks (except for athletes when they are competing), one-way systems and social distancing as well as the testing of all accredited people. “We are on a steep learning curve,” said Alexander. “But we should take confidence in our learnings and best practices to put on events in 2021.”
In the last part of the Athletes Forum, Periklis Iakovakis and Hannah England spoke on the importance of athletes' representation bodies.
Iakovakis spoke about the function of the European Athletics Athlete Committee and how they are able to have an active say in the decision-making process of European Athletics.
England also charted the formation of the UK Athletics Athletes’ Commission which she currently chairs and how it functions on behalf of British athletes. England emphasised how it is important for athlete representative groups to establish a good rapport with their Member Federations and to be diverse in terms of gender and ethnicity as well as to make sure athletes from all events are part of the discussion.
The 2020 European Athletics e-Convention resumes tomorrow at 9.00am CET with a focus on event management during the coronavirus pandemic.