Yes, televised track and field can be exciting. But don’t take our word for it.
For many U.S. sports fans, early August is a lean time. Three of the four major leagues are still on summer hiatus (sorry, the NFL preseason doesn’t count), while the baseball playoffs are still a ways off. In 2017, there is no summer Olympics or FIFA World Cup to fill the void.
However, despite this relative lack of competition, the sad fact remains that most people would rather have a tooth pulled than watch the track and field World Championships, which will be taking place in London from August 4 to August 13. Professional track and field has struggled to find an audience in this country, as evidenced most recently by the sparsely attended USATF National Championships last month. (Kenya apparently doesn’t have this problem.)
In an effort to counteract this widespread apathy towards the exploits of some of the planet’s finest athletes, here are five reasons why it’s worth checking out the IAAF World Championships next month, which will be streamed on NBC Sports.
A Legend Says Goodbye
Last year, Usain Bolt, the eight-time Olympic gold medalist and world record holder in the 100- and 200-meters, told the BBC that he aspired to be included in the pantheon of sports gods with Pele and Muhammad Ali. For all intents and purposes, the Jamaican sprinter is already there. In fact, the argument can be made that Bolt isn’t merely the most successful track and field athlete of all time, but the most successful athlete in any sport: ever since he rose to prominence in 2008, he never lost a race when it counted. Not even giants like Michael Phelps or Bjørn Dæhlie can make that claim.
Bolt has announced that he will retire after this season, and that the World Championships will be his last major competition. He will only be racing the 100-meters (and the 4X100 relay), where the final is scheduled for August 5. Don’t miss this chance to see Bolt in action. We won’t see someone like him again.
The Biggest Debate in Sports
Of all the events that will be contested next month in London, none have aroused as much external controversy as the women’s 800-meters. The current world number one is Caster Semenya, the South African runner who is rumored to have hyperandrogenism—a condition that causes unusually high testosterone levels in women. Some have argued that Semenya’s biological advantage is significant enough that she should not be allowed to compete against other, non-hyperandrogenic, female athletes without artificially reducing her T-levels–a position that others find entirely untenable. (Read a more detailed explanation of the debate.)
The final of the women’s 800 is on August 13. Semenya is a lock to make that race and will be heavily favored to take the gold medal. As for her thoughts on the argument that she shouldn’t be allowed to compete, Semenya was refreshingly terse in a recent interview with The Sowetan, a South African newspaper.
“I don’t have time for idiots,” she said.
Michael Johnson Redux
As those who remember the ’96 Olympics in Atlanta will recall, the big story on the track was Michael Johnson—aka the “Man with the Golden Shoes.” Racing in a pair of custom-made, gold-colored Nike racing spikes, Johnson became the first man to win both the 200 and 400-meter events in the same Olympics. He ran a world record in the former and an Olympic record in the latter, proving that with the right combination of talent and showmanship track and field can hold tremendous entertainment value (see: Usain Bolt). A statue of Johnson and his golden footwear stands beside the running track at Nike’s World HQ in Beaverton.
It seems that the second coming of Michael Johnson is now upon us. His name is Wayde van Niekerk. At last summer’s Olympics in Rio, the then 24-year-old South African broke Johnson’s world record in the 400, which had stood for 17 years. Like Johnson in Atlanta, van Niekerk will now attempt to win both the 200 and 400 at the World Championships. He definitely has the range: van Niekerk is the only sprinter in history who has run under 10 seconds in the 100, under 20 in the 200, and under 44 in the 400-meters. There were even rumors that Usain Bolt was afraid to race him.
A Glorious Metric Mile
Every year, the Diamond League, professional track and field’s equivalent of the Formula One racing circuit, has meets around the globe, with annual stops in cities like Eugene, Shanghai, Rabat, and Zurich. Part of the rationale for staging competitions on multiple continents is that it’s a way for athletics to grow and retain an international audience. To become a globally viable sport, however, track also needs multiple nationalities to be represented in individual events; it’s harder to stoke widespread interest when it’s always the U.S. and Caribbean island nations contesting all the sprint events and the East Africans dominating distance races.
All the more reason to be excited about the women’s 1,500-meters, an event which currently features a bevy of stars from all over. At the World Championships next month, the metric mile will have an international cast of high-profile contenders including: Sifan Hassan, born in Ethiopia, but representing the Netherlands, whose 1,500-meter time of 3:56.22 is the fastest in the world this year; Laura Muir, the Scot who valiantly tried to win the Olympic final in Rio last summer by going all out with two laps to go; Hellen Obiri, the Kenyan favorite who, like Muir, will also be contesting the 5,000 meters; Konstanze Klosterhalfen, the 20-year-old German prodigy whose star is still on the rise, but who has already earned the adulation of the LetsRun.com community.
One Mo Time
Along with Usain Bolt, the IAAF World Championships will also be the last major championships for Mo Farah, the British distance runner who has been unbeatable in recent years and will be looking to pull off the previously unthinkable feat of winning both the 5,000 and the 10,000-meters for the third consecutive time in World Championship competition.
Though others have run faster times over the years, no distance athlete has been better than Farah at racing on the track; the guy never fails to make sure that he’s at the right place at the right time (even when he takes a mid-race tumble). It’s become routine to see Farah loping along at the back of the pack in the early stages of the race, only to have worked his way to the front by the time things get critical with one or two laps to go. At 34 years old, Farah still has the fastest closing speed of any distance runner competing today. It’s not really fair that someone can be so good for so long, but it’s mesmerizing to behold.