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Major events: Organising the IAAF athletics and IPC para athletics world championships

London will host the IAAF athletics and IPC para athletics world championships in August. Tom Walker spoke to Cherry Alexander, head of the organising committee, who promises an event to rival London 2012

by Tom Walker, Leisure Media | Published in Sports Management Jul Aug 2017 issue 132
Cherry Alexander
Cherry Alexander

“Iseem to be working mostly 14-hour days now,” says a smiling Cherry Alexander, managing director of the organising committee for the London 2017 IAAF World Championships. Speaking exclusively to Sports Management, she explains that she’s in the final preparation stages for the athletics event, which will take place at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park from 4 to 13 August, 2017. Before this, there’s also the not-so-small matter of the IPC World Para Athletics Championships, held at the park from 14 to 23 July.

“I’m actually living on site, so I eat, sleep and drink at the park at the moment. My daily commute is a walk to the stadium and back, so it gives me the opportunity to try to visualise what I want it to look like when people arrive here for the two events.

“I have to force myself to catch up with the news every evening, because it really is a bit like living in your own world here. Everyone working on these events is in the same boat. Everyone is so focused on getting everything ready that we’re all living in our own bubble,” Alexander says.

Alexander was appointed head of the local organisation committee (LOC) for London 2017 in February last year. Since then, she has been directing the LOC and delivering the two championships on behalf of national governing body UK Athletics (UKA), the Greater London Authority and UK Sport, with support from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).

An industry veteran with 35 years’ experience in athletics, Alexander has spent the past 25 years at UKA – most of them as head of international and televised events. In her role, she has been responsible for delivering all of UKA’s elite events, as well as being part of the body’s bidding teams – including the one that secured this year’s world championships for London.

She has played a key role in organising the athletics events for the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics, and received an MBE for services to sport – as well as the Unsung Hero Award at the Sunday Times’ Sportswomen of the Year Awards.

At London 2017, however, there is nothing unsung about her role – she is the one leading the entire operation. “The one thing I’ve learned in this role is how important your team really is,” Alexander says, describing the experience. “Sure, a project like this needs leadership and direction, but you’d never be able to do any of this without having a great team to rely on.”

Alexander’s role at the London Olympics is a great reference point for the upcoming event. While she admits there may have been a temptation to create a “mini 2012” due to the London Games’ enduring appeal, visitors to the Olympic Park this summer will have a completely different experience.

“It won’t be like 2012 at all,” Alexander says. “The whole space has changed; it’s completely unrecognisable.”

She says that the change is partly due to the park having developed a life “outside the Olympics”. The athlete’s village has been turned into apartments, the park now houses a large office complex, the swimming pool is well used by local residents and the hockey pitches are always booked and in use.

“The space is full of life. It’s a really vibrant place,” Alexander says, adding that the presence of “normal life” has also presented challenges for the organisers.

“West Ham United has its offices at the Olympic Stadium, as has stadium operator LS185 and all the other companies attached to the stadium’s everyday management. We’ve had to come up with completely different solutions to those used in 2012 – because five years ago every corner of the park and stadium was reserved for the Olympics.”

While there have been challenges, the way the park will be laid out has received praise for the innovative use of available space. “We presented our plans to the IAAF Council in April, and one of the technical delegates – who’s been involved from the outset – said the park will be even better than it was 2012,” Alexander says. “I noticed Seb Coe give him a wry smile at that point!”

Alexander says the Council was particularly impressed with the athlete-centric approach adopted for the planning of the 2017 event. “Everything has been done with the athletes in mind,” she says.

“We decided to build the warm-up track much closer to the stadium than it was in 2012. And we’ve moved the long throws to the North Park Lawn, where the International Broadcast Centre was located during the Olympics. As a result, the athlete flow is much better than it was in 2012.”

Alexander says that while most of the physical spaces have changed, there are some elements where the history and spirit of the London Games can be clearly seen and felt. “One of the most obvious legacies we’re tapping into is the volunteer force,” she reveals.

“Most of the Gamesmakers from 2012 are still around, so we set up a meeting with them. We managed to gather 250 volunteer leaders, who then interviewed a new set of volunteers. I find that quite amazing and inspirational, having so many people wanting to commit their time. They have vast experience – so I would call them ‘professional volunteers’.

“As former Gamesmakers, they all know how to react to people and create that welcome. It gives us an opportunity to reproduce the warm feeling and hospitality that London 2012 became so famous for.”

Alexander is also confident that the event will create a lasting legacy for athletics by creating interest at grassroots level – just as the London 2012 Olympics did. “Looking back at 2012, it absolutely did create momentum,” Alexander says.

“As well as increasing grassroots participation, it helped to put the health agenda and physical activity on the map.”

She adds that there are direct links from the legacy created by London 2012 and this year’s World Championships. “There are kids who watched the athletics on the TV in 2012, who are now on the radar to compete in 2017. Take Dina Asher-Smith, who was a 16-year-old kit carrier at London 2012. Now she’s likely to make it to the final of the 100m at London 2017.”

“I’m convinced that there will be kids watching the action at London 2017, who will be then hoping that the UK does win the Commonwealth Games bid for 2022, which UK cities are currently mulling over. It’s my job to help make that happen – to help create the next five-year cycle, just as we’ve had off the back of London 2012.”


The local organising committee (LOC) for the London 2017 IAAF World Championships is unusual as it’s the first time that an LOC has been wholly organised and run by a national governing body (NGB), in this case UK Athletics. Usually, LOCs are made up of stakeholders, including representatives of government and national institutions of sports and/or Olympic committees.

“It’s really rare for an NGB to fulfil the role of LOC, especially from bid through to delivery, as we have done,” Alexander says. “To do so in full will be first time in World Championship history – and we’re very proud of that.”

“It’s easy to forget that doing this as an NGB was actually a large gamble when we won the bid back in 2011. However, as well as providing a legacy for athletics as a sport, I think there will be a lasting legacy for us as a national governing body.

“The learnings have been invaluable. For example, the experience of organising an event like this has taught us a lot about managing risks and acting more like a business would.”


The IAAF and the local organising committee have invested in a network of temporary structures to cater for athletes, support staff and the crowds expected for the World Championships. The company providing them is UK-based sports specialist GL Events.

In total, the company will deliver 64 multi-purpose structures covering a total of 12,500sqm (135,000sq ft) of space – including 1,000 tiered, Olympic-standard spectator seats. The largest single structure will be the 25mx60m Media and Broadcast Centre, while the smallest will be 5mx5m pagodas housing retail and merchandising. Structures will be located within the Olympic Park and also across London – including some at the marathon finish.

“The challenge is the sheer scale of the project,” says Scott Jameson, group MD at GL Events.

“We’re installing 64 structures across one of the biggest cities in the world, from complex venues to smaller pagodas. We’re also creating bespoke infrastructure for the marathon. Logistically, we will be craning in equipment, as life goes on in one of the world’s busiest cities.”

temporary structures
temporary structures
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