Campaigns: Triumph and ignominy

Everyone remembers Sport Aid - or do they? Third Sector columnist Nick Cater was its press chief: here he recalls how it flourished and died - and suggests some lessons for the campaigns of today.

It was 20 years ago this month that Sport Aid made the whole world run. On 25 May 1986 the 10km Race Against Time took place in hundreds of places across the globe in aid of Unicef. Millions of people from Australia to Zimbabwe turned out to jog 10km; there were 1.2 million runners in the UK and 28,000 in Ouagadougou, west Africa. Others chose to swim, ice skate, dance, work out, or play cricket or dozens of other sports.

Backed by Bob Geldof's Band Aid, Sport Aid came less than a year after the Live Aid spectacular and was a stunning success, at a time when the African famine was almost as potent a call for action as the Asian tsunami.

Just a year later it crashed to earth after trying to repeat its achievement.

Sport Aid began with a simple but ambitious idea: a week of sporting events and a fun run to raise millions and fight famine. In early 1986, the United Nations announced that it would stage a special session on Africa's crisis at the end of May in New York. This offered a global political focus and a deadline - the session immediately became the target for Sport Aid's 'petition of blistered feet', urging action on hunger.

News of the session, which was just 100 days away, kick-started the planning.

Grinding negotiations with sports bodies, businesses, charities and media organisations began. Sport Aid staff set about telling the world about the event.

Today you would start with a website and blast off a million emails, but 1986 had no web and no email as we know it, and mobile phones of the time resembled bricks. Instead, buzzing faxes and clicking telex machines worked night and day contacting global lists of running clubs and other sporting bodies, media groups and many more organisations.

The aim in each country was to establish a three-way coalition: Unicef and other charities to process donations; a media partner; and a sponsor to cover costs so that all funds went to those in need.

When you're building a global event, details cannot be dictated. Most national organisers were effectively autonomous, so anything was possible once they realised they were in charge - as the UK proved with 12 official runs, but 2,000 self-staged events.

In London, Sport Aid founder Chris Long and his co-director Simon Dring built a 100-strong team to organise and publicise the event. Their task was to create a buzz and get millions involved in probably the largest-ever sports participation event: a unique synchronised global run launched simultaneously and covered live on the most complex TV broadcast yet attempted.

Conventional promotion ranged from the 'I Ran The World' T-shirts - given exposure again more recently by Little Britain - to posters, radio ads, celebrity stunts and a reworked hit single declaring Everybody Wants to Run the World. But naive assumptions that sports desks would eagerly promote Sport Aid were quickly dashed - the charity was urged to go away "and don't come back until you have real sportsmen playing real sport".

Despite the challenges, the Sport Aid team did manage to secure a blizzard of press, radio and TV coverage. At the heart of this was the emotive metaphor that Sport Aid used to carry the message - an African runner dispatched by the charity to stride across the world as a symbol of all that the continent could achieve, if given the chance.

Sudanese athlete Omar Khalifa lit a torch from a desert refugee campfire and flew from Africa to run through a succession of European cities on both sides of the Iron Curtain. On the way he was greeted by politicians, presidents and royalty, including Prince Charles and Princess Diana at Buckingham Palace.

Having made the TV news every night for a week, he flew to New York to run through the streets to the UN, light a flame and set millions running.

After it was over, the money had been counted and the blisters had healed, what next? Obviously, we had to carry on. Bigger and better, Sport Aid 1988 ran the world again, this time for the cause of children worldwide.

With greater costs and no income from overseas to cover overheads, the organising company in London needed plenty of sponsorship and merchandising sales, but the UK failed to get as excited about Sport Aid the second time around.

Concerns emerged when merchandise sales and sponsorship lagged. The death knell came when a postal strike hit race entries in the final days. Shortly afterwards, the company went bust owing a seven-figure sum.

Remarkably, all charity funds were saved, taking overall totals to more than $50m (£33.5m at the prevailing exchange rate in 1986), raised by at least 20 million people in 132 countries. An ignominious end, but a triumph nonetheless. As Geldof said in 1986 as Sport Aid's millions began running: "You can affect the world you live in: change the world."

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