In Stride

Why Usain Bolt Can’t Save Track

The superstar is set to compete in regular-season IAAF events. But there’s just one problem: He won’t have any competition.

Why Usain Bolt Can’t Save Track

The IAAF president has said that he doesn’t want big-name matchups to overshadow the world championships. Photo: Nick Webb/Flickr

In late March, the International Association of Athletics Federations made an announcement from its world headquarters in Monaco that excited track and field fans everywhere: Usain Bolt entered the 100-meter dash at the June 13 Adidas Grand Prix in New York, a regular-season nonchampionship event. Later, the IAAF added Bolt to the roster of two similar events in Paris and Switzerland.

The announcements seem like a victory for a sport that struggles to attract attention outside of the Olympics. But while adding a big name to the roster is a good step forward, the IAAF missed the most important part of the crowd-generating formula: a worthy opponent. It’s like promoting Muhammad Ali without Joe Frazier. Any combination of a Justin Gatlin, Tyson Gay, or Yohan Blake alongside Bolt in that announcement would have changed the dynamic and charged the atmosphere with Olympic-level enthusiasm. Instead, the IAAF is missing a critical promotional point: Track needs to consistently stage epic regular-season nonchampionship matchups to survive and attract a fan base. It cannot promote itself with a single superstar.

The IAAF’s Diamond League series, which includes the races in which Bolt will appear, was introduced in 2010 as part of a strategy to provide high-quality nonchampionship competition from May to September in hopes of dispelling the notion among casual fans that track and field exists only in Olympic years. Outside Europe, the 14-meet annual series now holds competitions in North America, the Middle East, and Asia.

But the league, particularly in two of the sport’s glamour events, the men’s 100 and 200 meters, has suffered a self-defeating catch-22 since its inception: It’s designed to promote the sport, but the IAAF president himself says he doesn’t want big-name head-to-heads at regular meets because that could overshadow the IAAF World Championships, held in late August.

Responding to a question about Diamond League head-to-heads in the months leading up to the 2011 world championships, IAAF president Lamine Diack said in a press conference that it would not be realistic to expect multiple matchups between Gay and Bolt. “That could diminish the value of the world championships. Maybe they will meet just once before then,” he said. “We will see.”

Yes, the 10-day biennial World Outdoor Championships are track and field’s golden goose in terms of revenue production. But Diack is wrong to assume that their value would drop by allowing the sport’s fastest men to do what should come naturally for any athlete—compete, early and often.

Take the women’s sprints, for example, where quality head-to-heads throughout the season only increased the intensity of the championship buildup in 2013. Bolt’s teammate Shelley-Ann Fraser-Pryce ran in eight Diamond League races against the best competition, was beaten three times, and still came away with gold medals in three of the most highly anticipated events (women’s 100 and 200 meters and the 4x100 relay) at the 2013 Worlds in Moscow—an event with just under 400,000 live spectators and another estimated 5 billion television viewers, according to the IAAF. 

But the IAAF is not the only party employing flawed logic: Elite sprinters do it too. Some pro athletes hesitate to compete head-to-head in nonchampionship settings. Their handlers seem to fear the risk of injury or a tarnished image if, heaven forbid, their athlete should fail to win. This practice is unique to track and is contrary to every other major sport, where athletes repeatedly put their reputation and health on the line whenever they step onto the field of play.

The solution to track’s fight for relevance, fans hope, lies in a change of leadership at the IAAF. Diack will retire in August, and two of the sport’s all-time greats who competed during track’s heyday are vying for Diack’s seat of power: Great Britain’s former middle-distance ace, Sebastian Coe, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and world record holder from the early 1980s; and Ukraine’s Sergey Bubka, a six-time world champion pole vaulter and Olympic gold medalist who competed throughout the 1980s and ’90s.

Both have extensive service in politics, the Olympic movement, and IAAF leadership. In the lead-up to the August elections, Coe and Bubka have each released their manifestos, which, while not specifically addressing the head-to-head problem, promise to reform the sport with a view toward maximizing its potential. It would appear that, between the two, there really is no bad choice.

For track to flourish, the IAAF isn’t the only player that needs an attitude change. Reluctant athletes also need to change their view of competition. Ultimately, the IAAF and the athletes are hurting themselves in the long run by “saving” themselves for the championships and not seriously participating in the season-long buildup. It only diminishes overall interest and, ultimately, the power of the sport.

Filed To: Fitness, Running, Track and Field

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