Tuesday, August 25, 2009

World Championships Review

12th IAAF World Athletics Championships - Day Two

With the close of any Olympic or World Championship competition comes the inevitable "critique" of the event. Often that review is pretty easy - either the meet is really exciting or not. But as I sat down Sunday after the final 4x4 was done, and then again yesterday as I tried to jot down my thoughts, I realized that this meet was different than just about any other I had ever watched. And after much thought I've come to the conclusion that this was perhaps the most complex set of competitions that I've ever seen - a meet within a meet, within a meet.

The meet that most will remember is the Usain Bolt Show! Because there is no denying that Bolt was the main attraction in Berlin. The unbelievaBolt one was uber fast, not once but twice setting world records that I would say could stand for quite some time - except I know they won't. Bolt ripped up and down and around the track leaving the competition in his wake, and electrifying the crowd with his personality and extraordinary feats of sprinting. The opening two days of the meet with the build up to his showdown with Tyson Gay was clearly THE highlight of the meet. Watching them through the rounds. Speculating on what would happen. Then the electric final with Gay running out of his head and yet there a stride and a half in front from start to finish was Bolt and the two fastest men to ever grace the planet gave us a show that most will remember to the grave. Opening Saturday and Sunday, Usain Bolt and Tyson Gay, showed us just what this sport can be when presented at its best - The Greatest show on Earth!

But then Bolt left the track - and the cadence and tone of the meet changed DRAMATICALLY! We watched what was happening on the track, but we were really waiting for Bolt and Gay to take to the track again. But in less than 24 hours we learned that Gay would not be running the 200 because of his groin, and the air went out of our balloon as the meet within the meet - THE MEET - was done. We watched the 200, but it wasn't the same because we knew there would be no challenge. The only question was what would the time be. And though in the end Bolt gave us a show, and we rejoiced at the time that flashed on the clock, we knew it would have been a bit sweeter if someone else had at least been in the same frame when the cameras showed him running down the track! And as much as the 100 showed us all that the sport can be, the 200 showed us that REAL excitement needs both Yin AND Yang. That Magic Johnson really needed Larry Bird. That in order to have a Thrilla in Manilla you needed BOTH Muhammad Ali AND Joe Frazier. We had a Thrilla in Manila on Saturday and Sunday. What we had on Thursday was an exhibition. And as great as the exhibition was it just wasn't the "Thrilla"!

But it was better than what we had during the rest of the meet. Because in the absence of Bolt v Gay, and Bolt going solo, we were left with a bunch of athletes simply going through the motions. No disrespect to the others that competed but the supernova that was Usain Bolt cast a light of expectation so bright that everything else was eclipsed in its shadow! And though some truly great athletes took to the track their personalities and performances just didn't match up.

In short, while many say that Bolt is great for the sport, sometimes greatness can create a divide. Bob Beamon took the long jump forward, and at the same time set it back almost two decades - ditto Lee Evans and the 400. And what Berlin showed us is that while the sport is embracing Usain Bolt, it desperately needs to find others! Merritt v Wariner just didn't have that same swagger to it. Lagat v Bekele was great but easily forgotten. Track and field needs STARS - plural - or it will be eclipsed by its own, single bright light!

For all the grandeur of competition that a World Championships provides, this one also exposed the sport's glaring weakness as a professional endeavor - the inability to hold its audience with more than a single athlete! And for all the reports that have been done, and attempts to make the sport more "fan friendly" by cutting down meets and eliminating events, what Berlin proved is that its not fewer events or shorter meets that fans crave but searing, high level competition!

They will come in droves and stay for days on end if given superior competition. They will also stay home in droves regardless of the shortness of the meet or enticements provided if the competition itself is short of expectations. What track and field needs is Usain Bolt v Tyson Gay X 10 - and not just one meet a year. The IAAF and track and field need to set about the business of developing a plethora of stars in much the same way that a once stuck in the doldrums NBA had to develop a universe that included Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, David Robinson, and Michael Jordan ALL at the same time! When the sport figures out how to do THAT the issue won't be is the meet short enough, but is the stadium large enough to seat all the fans!

I have other observations from Worlds that I will be talking about in the coming days, including the performances of the US team, and the drug and gender issues that were raised last week. But clearly Berlin gave us a glimpse of what the sport can be - but only a glimpse.

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