No athlete in history has earned as much per second as Usain Bolt but the long line of punters queueing out of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park for last-minute tickets on a grotty, sodden Friday night suggested he was worth his fee, whatever it was (the whispers on the athletics circuit, where everyone is paid in dollars, start at $100,000 and rise steeply thereafter).
To put that into pounds and pence, that is at least £3,250 a second for his two 100m runs, both in 9.87sec, at the Anniversary Games.
Even after so many years, Bolt has that rare ability to make the crowd giddy before a race – and gasp during it. On Friday he took a regal bow before playing air drums when his name was announced, but hyper-relaxation soon gave way to hyper-acceleration as his fast-twitch fibres sparked into life, prompting the Olympic Stadium into purrs of approval. It is hard to gauge the size of the Bolt boost in London this weekend but crowds for the Rome Diamond League meeting this year were down by 20,000 when the Jamaican did not compete.
Yet in two years’ time, after the 2017 world championships in London, it will all be over. There will be no more Bolt. And as Seb Coe, who is running for the presidency of athletics’ governing body, the IAAF, said on Friday, this leaves the sport with a “high-class problem” because, in his view, Bolt has “captured the imagination like no sporting figure since Muhammad Ali in the 1970s”. Michael Jordan and Lionel Messi might have something to say about that but Coe is on the right track. For Bolt is someone who is known from Newark to Nairobi, and makes non-athletics fans want to watch athletics. Which isn’t something you can say about too many others in track and field.
And his influence transcends athletics’ normal demographics too. As Coe explained: “In 2004 or 2005, when I started to campaign on behalf of the London Olympics, I went into schools in London and Yorkshire, they’d come out with names like David Beckham and Roger Federer. A few years later, they’d come out with Bolt.”
But when he goes, what then? His departure will leave a 6ft 5in sized hole that will be impossible to fill. Inevitably athletics will become a little less relevant outside Olympic Games and world championships. True, partly that will be because of the virus-like spread of football. But Coe also said that athletics has to work harder to promote champions such as Allyson Felix, Valerie Adams and David Rudisha. Renaud Lavillenie should be on that list too, given his spectacular feats and the size of his personality, although few were rushing in at midday to watch him in the rescheduled pole vault competition on Saturday.
Before long, though, the stadium was roaring and applauding a fantastic afternoon of sport. Dina Asher-Smith became the first British woman to go under 11 seconds for 100m. Shara Proctor broke the British long jump record. Asbel Kiprop made the process of running a mile in 3min 54 sec look as carefree as a park jog. And if Greg Rutherford was not at his best in the long jump, he must have spent an hour generously posing for every selfie request.
A casual viewer might have thought the sport was in rude health but, as one smart insider put it to me, that was not a typical Diamond League atmosphere. Usually the stadiums are smaller and the list for complimentary tickets much greater. London felt more like a major championship. The aftershock of hosting the Olympics, felt during last year’s Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, was still reverberating at the Anniversary Games.
Everyone knows the Diamond League needs a shake-up. It is supposed to be a Formula One-style competition, across 14 global meetings, with the winner of the most points in each event coming out on top. But even most athletics fans would not be able to tell you that Britain’s new recruit, Zharnel Hughes, tops the 200m rankings.
As Coe admitted when he launched his manifesto for the IAAF job, athletics’ calendar “seems disjointed, lacks a narrative and the essential glue to build excitement and a loyal and passionate following”. He wants to change it but as things stand the Diamond League does not have a major global sponsor. In fairness to Coe, he has other positive suggestions too, including for the sport to host more “Street” Games, which take athletes out of stadiums and into city centres.
It would undoubtedly also help if high-profile athletes lined up against each other more often. Pitching Bolt against Justin Gatlin outside a major championship would not be cheap but the casual fan may also wonder why they have not raced each other since 2013.
It is also impossible to ignore the damaging effect positive drug tests – and allegations – have had on the sport. If viewers are suspicious of what they are seeing, why should they keep watching? Athletics does more drugs testing than other sport but given its past it needs to throw whatever it takes into rooting out the cheats and ensuring the sport is clean.
Athletics has a purity to it that should appeal. It is about running, throwing and jumping as fast and far and high as possible, which is something that everyone can relate to. But in the post-Bolt era, will whoever is in charge of the sport persuade enough people to connect?
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