The biggest threat to Olympic sports is not the Matildas or AFLW

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Screens are a bigger threat to females taking up athletics than the impact of the enormous success of the Matildas at the World Cup and the growing popularity of AFLW, according to incoming Athletics Australia president Jane Flemming.

Flemming, an Olympian and two-time Commonwealth Gold medallist, also said she felt enormous empathy for Peter Bol and remained outraged at his treatment by doping authorities, in which he was banned for a positive drug test for EPO, only for the suspension to be lifted and the positive result overturned from a second test.

New Athletics Australia president Jane Flemming.Credit: Joe Armao

“What he has been through is horrendous, and we are working towards making sure that never happens again to any athlete under our jurisdiction. God forbid anyone had to go through what Peter went through,” Flemming said.

An inquiry by Sport Integrity Australia into what happened in the Bol case is ongoing while World Anti-Doping Agency is re-investigating testing methods for EPO.

Flemming, who was recently appointed AA president, said athletics was the most gender-neutral sport in the world and with the Olympics, had a competitive edge on other sports.

“I think the biggest threat to female sport is a screen, it isn’t the Matildas or the football codes,” Flemming said.

The case against runner Peter Bol is officially over, allowing him to run towards the Paris Olympics.Credit: Getty Images

“Athletics is a social sport and in particular for females, they are hard-wired to be social and that is why the social aspect of athletics is so important. And then there is the Olympics as well.

“We don’t have women’s athletics, we have athletics. We have always participated at the same place [as men], at the same time, for the same prize money. Athletics has always been gender-neutral.

“A teenager trains at the same time at the same venue as adults, men and women. It is social sport. It is quite different to other sports that they only train and compete with girls or with boys. We do all of that together and it is a very social sport.

“Swimming is one of the only other sports like that, and I think that is a real advantage for us.”

Matildas trio Tameka Yallop, Amy Sayer and Charlotte Grant.Credit: Getty

The money in professional sports, most notably the football codes, cricket and tennis, has been a primary reason many elite male athletes over the years have been lost to athletics.

“You have to be careful what currency you are going to measure your life in. Despite the fact those other sports might offer other assets or interests, athletics has got the Olympics, and nearly every male I ever competed with, particularly from the southern states, at some point was tapped on the shoulder by an AFL club. And their answer was, ‘But I want to go to the Olympics’. It is a huge advantage we have,” she said.

Flemming was eager for her sport to embrace change in how it presented itself and was excited about opportunities to showcase in innovative ways, such as when Australia’s world champion pole vaulter Nina Kennedy won a Diamond League meet staged in a Zurich train station earlier this year.

“We have Nina and Kurtis Marschall in Perth, imagine us being able to put a temporary runway down the mall in Perth and have a pole vault competition there, or a shot put competition in the middle of Martin Place because that is what they do in Zurich, they run shot put in the main street of the city,” she said.

To that end on Saturday night at the Zatopek, there will be a foot bridge over the track where spectators can watch the runners race underneath them, or walk into the field inside the track and watch the race just centimetres from the athletes as they race past. Music from popular DJ Peking Duk will be playing as the athletes compete.

There will also be mixed relay and team events, making for a more entertaining night to a typical athletics meet.

The successful Maurie Plant meet in Melbourne this year, which featured the world’s fastest man Fred Kerley and was delivered in a high-energy exciting format, was a window on how athletics could better deliver a meet.

“We got that formula quite right. The low-hanging fruit for us are the people who have already loved the sport but had not been engaged recently, so we didn’t have to sell them on the sport, we just had to activate them and there are heaps of those around Australia,” Flemming said.

“I sat next to [horse trainer] David Hayes at the races one day, and he was telling me he was a triple jumper for South Australia. [Seven West Media chairman] Kerry Stokes used to run for Coburg Athletics, the same club as Raelene Boyle. Melissa Babbage, Joe Hockey’s wife, was a national finalist in the 400m. There are people all over that we need to activate. They all still love it but don’t engage with it.”

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