Athletics fails its fans by robbing them of competition for Usain Bolt
By Simon Hart
September 13th, 2011
Athletics may still regard itself as the blue riband sport of the Olympic Games but it seems determined to alienate its dwindling band of fans.
On Friday, the track and field season reaches its conclusion at the Diamond League final in Brussels, where the cast list includes Usain Bolt and fellow Jamaican Yohan Blake - the man who dethroned Bolt as world 100 metres champion after the Olympic champion was sensationally disqualified for false-starting in last month’s final in Daegu.
The Ivo van Damme Memorial meeting is one of the best attended on the circuit, and with an expected sell-out crowd of 48,000 it offered the perfect stage to re-run the world-final-that-never-was, testing Bolt’s boast that, had he not been red-carded, he would have been too quick for Blake and the rest of the 100m field in South Korea.
Only the match-up will not be taking place. Unbelievably, the two athletes will be kept apart in different races in Brussels, with Bolt competing in an invitation 100m and Blake running the 200m.
And people wonder why athletics has declined in popularity since its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s.
The Diamond League, which is reaching the end of its second year of existence, was meant to promote more head-to-head clashes between the biggest stars yet the sport continues to shoot itself in the foot by allowing athletes to avoid each other so flagrantly.
In fact, since the last World Championships in Berlin in 2009, you can count on one hand the number of genuinely competitive 100m races Bolt has had – one against Tyson Gay in Stockholm in 2010 and two against Asafa Powell in Paris in 2010 and in Rome earlier this summer.
The world 100m final in Daegu would have been the first time Bolt had raced Blake this season had he not been disqualified. He competed against him only twice last year.
Now call me old-fashioned, but I tend to think that sport works best when competition is involved.
Since the Beijing Olympics, Bolt has been a godsend to meet promoters, more than justifying his eye-watering appearance fees by putting bums on seats and bringing in sponsorship revenue, but building meetings around what is essentially a one-man exhibition is not sustainable in the long term.
I have seen Bolt in action perhaps a dozen times in the last three years and there are already signs that the pre-race theatrics, the lightning-bolt gestures and the laps of honour are starting to
The Rome and Olso crowds lapped it all up this season because he was making his first appearance at their meets, but in Paris, where he was returning for the second successive year, the atmosphere was noticeably more muted – not helped by a dismal 200m race delayed by a faulty start.
What the recent World Championships showed is that true head-to-head competition is the heartbeat of athletics rather than exhibitionism for its own sake.
The moments that stick in the memory are Ethiopian Ibrahim Jeilan hunting down and catching a distressed-looking Mo Farah in the 10,000m final, or Grenadian teenager Kirani James pipping Olympic champion Lashawn Merritt on the line in the 400m final.
They are the kind of moments we can look forward to being repeated in the Olympic Stadium next summer, though outside the major championships, competition appears to be a dirty word.
A 100m clash between Bolt and Blake in Brussels would have been a fitting climax to the season. Instead, the 48,000 paying customers have been outrageously short-changed.