How much coverage should teenage athletes receive in the age of social media? Opinion seems divided

Our coverage of the Cardiff Cross Challenge once again raises the question of how much attention AW and the wider media should devote to the younger age groups. For every reader who believes we shouldn’t put pressure on teenage athletes, or publicise their exploits until they become seniors, there are probably more athletes, proud parents and coaches who are keen for us to report what they’ve done.

As our Cardiff coverage went live last weekend, for example, a teacher messaged us to ask whether we should be tagging an under-13 winner into a video on Instagram. On the flip side, the father of another teenage winner contacted us to ask why we hadn’t put the post-race interview of his child on our channels yet.

In recent weeks we even had someone from an athletics governing body questioning our decision to pursue an interview with a 14-year-old runner for a monthly magazine issue that focused on young athletes who had made their mark this year.

The implication was that such coverage would put too much pressure on the athlete. That concern is fair enough, although appearing on the front cover of our magazine in 2008 when she was aged 15 didn’t harm the career of double world champion Katarina Johnson-Thompson. Nor Keely Hodgkinson (cover star aged 16), Dina Asher-Smith (cover star aged 17) and Mo Farah (cover star aged 18) – not to mention coverage inside our magazine when they were much younger.

Mo Farah with Jason Henderson

I remember calling a young athlete for an interview and having my ear bitten off by her mum because she felt such exposure in our pages was potentially putting too much pressure on her child. I politely agreed and put the phone down.

A few years later, though, I watched her replace a big-name athlete at the last minute at the European Team Championships, which was live on BBC, with the media descending on her to ask how she handled the race. The athlete looked a bit startled and I was left wondering whether some low-key interview experience with AW a few years earlier might have helped prepare her for the bigger stage.

Saying this, everyone is different and some teenage athletes are chatty, confident and enjoy being interviewed whereas others are shy, introverted and might indeed find being in the spotlight a little overwhelming.

My policy in Cardiff – and similar events – was to skew my coverage toward writing more on the senior races and older age groups with less about the youngest age groups. I also pretty much ignored the under-11 races and this stems from the fact that statisticians generally overlook this age group because they are considered so very young.

Linked to this, the under-11 races were not part of the British Athletics Cross Challenge races in Cardiff either, although ironically the organisers soon received complaints during the day over the fact they were not awarded the same kind of medals that older athletes received.

AW interviewing English Schools medallists

A common argument from those who do not favour the coverage of young athletes is that we should wait until they “make it” as seniors. But this assumes that the only true success in athletics is the kind that is achieved between roughly the ages of 18 to 40.

Some athletes simply excel as teenagers – or, at the other end of the spectrum, as masters athletes – so why can’t those achievements be celebrated in the same way? The sport is full of teenage champions who didn’t make their mark as senior athletes but nevertheless have brilliant memories – and maybe a cuttings book of AW articles and photos – to cherish in later life.

If they do not “make it” as seniors either, I doubt the pressure arguably caused by AW coverage is to blame. Moreso it is simply down to injuries, the distractions of exams or just plain disinterest in pursuing a career as an athlete.

READ MORE: Cardiff Cross Challenge coverage

The world of athletics coverage is an ever-changing landscape as well. Gone are the days when young athletes would only appear in a print magazine or local newspaper several days after their competition. Today their results and videos of them in action are on social media straight away. Trolls who have the bizarre urge to comment negatively under these posts are a major problem too.

All of which brings us back to the question of how AW should report on young athletes in the digital age. There is, perhaps, no perfect answer. Still, we would be interested to hear your views.

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