Silvia Rueda’s exclusive interview with the President of the Spanish Athletics Federation, Raúl Chapado

It was Spain’s best performance at the European Athletics Championships since 2002. Can Munich 2022 be the catalyst for Spanish athletics in the future?

I don’t think so. I think that, in the end, if we look at Berlin [2018], the numbers were very similar and the same goes for Barcelona [2010]. It’s true that we had one more finalist, but we were at home and that’s easier! I don’t think you can analyse the European Championships on its own, in isolation. We must look at what has happened in the last four or five years in other World Championships. In Belgrade we were the first European power and finished fourth.

We also performed well at the World Championships in Eugene and although we only had one medal at the Olympic Games in Tokyo, we had 11 finalists. That was the highest number of finalists we have ever had in the history of any competition, even more than Barcelona.

You’ve also got to look at what the U18, U20 and U23 teams are doing at international levels and the results they are achieving.

All of this is the result of what is happening down below. If you don’t work on these lower generations, it’s difficult for great athletes to appear or emerge if they haven’t had that kind of performance.

I think that Spanish athletics has been showing a competitive capacity in accordance with its sporting reality for the last four or five years. Spanish athletics has recovered the levels of yesteryear. I think that right now, above all, it is very important what the team transmits in each competition. No matter the discipline, if that’s trail running, cross country, track and field.

We are always very close to what we understand to be a great result, and, above all, we are, as a team, transmitting that the athletes are leaving at any competition everything they have. We can’t choose the circumstances that surround us, but what we can choose is our attitude.

What have all the medals and results obtained this season meant for the Federation?

The Federation provides part of the ecosystem, but the important thing is the work done by the coaches and the athletes. The first thing to focus on is that it has probably been the most complex season in history. There have been so many international competitions. Not only the European and World Championships: we have had the Iberic-American Games in Spain and the Mediterranean Games.

We’ve had the World Championships in Cali! We’ve had everything so it was really difficult. It was a challenge for coaches and athletes to be able to perform in all the competitions. We have seen some countries that had a great performance and in Eugene, they didn’t perform as well as they did in Munich. For example, Germany did not perform well at the World Championships, and three weeks later they were at the top of the medal table at the European Championships together with the UK.

In the end, you must consider the context that surrounds you. Two years of a pandemic, a crisis, a very complex season, and we have come through it. We have not only survived but we have come out stronger from a season like this.

The athletes, coaches, clubs, and the whole team have done an exceptional job. And the Federation always works to create. I always say that we are like wine growers. There are people who work the land, others who harvest the grapes and then there are  others who prepare it. In the end, we, the Federation, market it at the big fairs. If there isn’t a good harvest, it’s hard for us to make it.

How can you attract more people to athletics in Spain when football or basketball are the main sports? 

We have been working on it for the last six years. It was one of our strategic objectives: to make athletics more visible. To make it more attractive for the agents around it, not only for spectators, but also for the media. And, how to make a better staging.

At RTVE [Spanish TV broadcaster], they have broadcasted 14 or 15 international and national competitions, with more than 15 hours of footage. We have produced more than 70 hours of streaming. Today in Spain it is possible to watch practically all the national championships of any age, of any discipline in high quality, with results management, with good commentators. I believe that this increases visibility.

Yulimar Rojas at Barcelona (Getty)

It is true that, in high competition, we have direct rivalry with other sports, but I believe that our reference will never be football. We must try to improve the attractiveness of athletics and understand what the world is like. Today the world is moving faster than we can control and the new technologies make sports more accessible to people.

Before, information was only available from a couple of television stations and the press, and now you can practically have information from millions of people who are talking about your sport, athletes and competitions. What also must be considered as it is having an impact. We are going to break the record this year for historical licences. We have never broken the record of 100,000 licences in Spain and we are going to break it this year.

This means that we are spreading our sport better. The participation of men and women has been balanced in all competitions. There are age groups where the number of licences is still more male than female, but the perception is either that participation is equal or that there are even more women. For example, the audience figures that Munich has had on Teledeporte (the sports TV Channel from RTVE) are fantastic for a channel that has a share of less than 1%, with audience peaks that exceeded one million people.

You can see that the normal public, the public in the street, is beginning to understand what athletics is?

You know, you also must analyse it in a global way. I mean, athletics is much more than it was before. There is trail running, where we now have a lot of races, natural environments, with people enjoying themselves. There is also cross-country running – at the Cross de Itálica in Seville, 15,000 people came to watch it in situ. I don’t remember in this modern era that there were 15,000 people watching that race.

The important thing is that I think our athletes are much better known in society today. It is difficult to go out in the street and ask for Asier Martínez, Ana Peleteiro, Mohamed Katir or even Miguel Ángel López or whoever and people don’t know them. A few years ago, this was difficult for us. Ruth Beitia and few other names were familiar to people.

Miguel Ángel López (Getty)

But there are also great athletics promises, such as María Vicente. I think that’s important because in the end that’s what we must measure. Even so, we still have a lot of work to do, and we have a challenge as an organisation, which is how to adapt quickly to the new trends. We must try to attract that generation of young people.

What are the Federation’s plans after this 2022 season?

Our vision is set in our long-term vision. We want to position Spain as a leader in the future. But we must work on the goals day by day on the sporting side.

Right now, we are working on the next objectives we have. But we have also been working for almost four years on a model of innovation and technological transformation that we are developing with companies such as IBM and Telefónica. The goal is not only to provide better services, but also to know who consumes our product, how they consume it, how old they are, how we can improve our services and our information for them.

We have taken this step at a time of crisis, but we believe it is the path to digital transformation. We are working on projects with schools, with the development of women’s athletics, in all areas. We are also working on issues of solidarity and sustainability. I believe that an organisation should have a more global vision, more than just sporting results.

How important will the Paris 2024 Olympic Games be for Spanish athletes and fans?

For us it is very important. First, because of the proximity to the French culture. Then the time zone is perfect. And the weather conditions are very similar to what we have here. We don’t have to adapt. So, the athlete sees it in a very optimistic way, with great enthusiasm. Having said that, when you analyse global athletics, I see it as getting more and more complex. It is more global. It is becoming more and more difficult to win a medal. Not only for us, but also for Europe compared to the rest of the world. In the past, Europe used to win 70 or 80 medals, but now we are struggling to win 35 medals.

As a team, we must go to Paris 2024 with the idea of improving our performance and improving on the results we had in Tokyo 2020, Rio 2016, or London 2012. We will work to be in those medal options, but it will depend on the work of coaches and athletes.

At the Alexander Stadium in Birmingham during the Commonwealth Games they had up to 30,000 fans and at the Olympic Stadium in Munich there were up to 60,000 fans in the stadium. How do you keep those fans and keep them growing?

I think the key is promotion. Not only in the promotion through your social networks.

When we do a meeting or host a championships here, everyone thinks that our social networks, our sphere of action, is what it is, and it’s not. You must go to the neighbourhood where it is held and promote it there, because there are a lot of people who don’t use your networks, don’t use your website, don’t know anything about your news. So, if you are in the Vallehermoso Stadium (Madrid) you must go to the Chamberí neighbourhood, you have to go to the downtown area and put-up posters and do street marketing… And that’s how you attract people.

On an international level it’s the same thing. You must do a big promotional campaign. That’s probably the key that there may be a lot of people or a few people who are interested in seeing it. And then you must have heroes. National heroes are very important, because if you don’t have a chance of winning, it’s very difficult to attract an audience. I think it’s very important both to promote and to have these national heroes and heroines that attract more people. Especially young people.

Is it necessary for a superstar athlete to break a world record for Spanish athletics to go to the next level? Or is it more about teamwork? 

Let’s be honest, the superstar in the end doesn’t depend on you. In the end, they are spontaneous generations that emerge. What does depend on the collective work of clubs, facilities, coaches, and athletes is that level. For example, in the last five years, around 750 or 760 national records have been broken in all categories. That means that the level is increasing. Obviously other things like new running shoe technology have had an influence, but we are averaging 120 to 130 new records every year.

Increasing the competitiveness within your competitions is key. If you don’t create that internal competitiveness, it’s very difficult to be competitive externally.

Tthen there are the superstars. When Jordan Diaz gets the transfer, he will probably be in a position in the future to break a world record. It’s a talent that is unique and every country has one from time to time and you must take advantage of it. Obviously, when you have a talent of that level you must use it, in quotation marks, to promote your sport. But you can’t just stick to the idea that Jordan can break the world record. We must try to make Jordan an inspirational role model for the new generations.

The last time Spain hosted a European Championship was in 2010, an Olympic Games in 1992, and a World Championship in 1999. Can you imagine Spain hosting another championships in the next two decades?

I’m a bit more pessimistic here, much to my regret. I would love it to be like that, because the competitions not only serve to increase the number of fans, but they also serve to develop sport, to make exchanges, to get to know international organisations, to let the world know about your city, your country and to spread the word about it. This sport is exceptional. Athletics is the most global sport, it is worldwide.

But when one looks inwards and sees its current reality, I am afraid I must be pessimistic. We have two stadiums that could host this, but it doesn’t look possible right now. One is disabled and is going to focus only on football, which is the Olympic Stadium of Montjuic (Barcelona). The other is the stadium in Seville – the La Cartuja Stadium – which now there are no plans by the public administration that manages the facility to even renovate the track to be able to host major championships.

Barcelona 1992 Opening Ceremony (Getty)

No, it is not the time. But my job is to try to convince at some point, the sooner the better, so that we can once again become a reference point. Athletics that only has results, but does not participate in the international organisation, tends to impoverish itself and tends to lose the legacy it has built up over the years.

Many things were organised here and organised well decades ago. We are practically an organising nation that has stopped organising, so that is my job, to try to convince an administration or a group of administrations to support athletics at a time when the sporting return would also be guaranteed. But it is complicated.

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