I've been having a very interesting conversation the past couple of days with a good friend who took umbrage with my comment that I do not think that street races are the way to build this sport. His position, without all the details, is that street races, vaults, jumps, etc. are an asset to the sport because they bring out crowds of people - and therefore help to build the base of the sport.
Even if that were the case, that these events brought people out, I would still be against them because that would be a case of the tail wagging the dog. Getting people excited about something slightly related to the sport, is not the same as getting them excited about the sport itself. And unless these people are headed to our meets in the stadium, then it is a wasted effort in my humble opinion. You see the sport is run around a track and in stadiums. Our championships are run the same way. That is where our stars are developed; where our records are developed and measured; how our sport is defined. As such anything else is a hybrid, and we already have one hybrid of the sport that we are having difficulty selling and sustaining - the indoor season. A hybrid that is slowly dying as our athletes, as they should, are putting a greater emphasis on the outdoor season and the fame and money that they gain from it.
But back to the streets. My friend is correct in one respect, the select street events that have been held have been fairly successful - they have drawn crowds. But just as the fact that we see smoke at a fire doesn't mean that the fire was started by the smoke, I submit that the crowds at these events are NOT generated because the event itself was held! The key to these events are what should be the key to any of our events INSIDE the stadium - they secure star talent to compete, AND they are heavily marketed.
Usain Bolt became a star because of what he did on the track (the Games and Worlds), not because of the exposure in Manchester. The Manchester race gained legitimacy because Bolt ran there - Bolt didn't gain legitimacy because of the street race.
Do they get good crowds in Manchester? Absolutely. But NOT because they’re racing on the streets. Put a bunch of school kids out there, or even some of Britain's "B" level talent (I use them because they may be well known to the locals) and no one is watching. They go because someone takes the time to get top level talent to come run down that street! But guess what? They will go watch them in the stadium if you get the same athletes to commit! And if you get great matchups - Bolt v Gay, Liu v Robles v Oliver, Felix v Campbell Brown - you sell the meet out early!
The attractions in this sport are the matchups between the stars. Not just the stars themselves, but the matchups between them. Worlds, in spite of Mr. Diack's general feelings, is the spectacle it is because it has the largest gathering of stars, and the best matchups of the year - it cannot be diminished! Meets like Zurich and Oslo and Pre were track and field "nobility" long before the Diamond League, or even the Golden League, came to be. They attained their status because of their ability to attract the big name athletes and pit them against each other - not because they used "gimmicks" to attract fans.
THAT is how you build the sport, by showcasing your best talent and your best matchups - not by hosting ancillary events. The truth of the matter, is that I feel that the ancillary events delay the growth of the sport! Why? Because in order to make an ancillary event successful, you have to "steal" from your "real" events - no Bolt, no Gay, no Felix, no stars and no one cares regardless of where you hold the event.
When you put forth the money to attract stars to compete at hybrid events, you use money that could have been used to attract them to, and market, a "real/normal" event. In essence, every street race that Bolt, Felix or others compete in is one less "real" race that they will NOT compete in. Tyson Gay was running down the street in Manchester this past weekend instead of running against Powell in Shanghai. The sport would have been better off Sunday with Felix running a hundred against Campbell Brown and Jeter than it was with her running a race that didn't matter down the middle of the street. And the sport would have been immensely better off with Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell going head to head instead of Tyson taking a shot in the rain at a record that at the end of the day meant nothing. Even if Tyson had set the record over the hybrid 150, the question then becomes: how would he fair against Bolt over 200! For proof look no further than his 19.41 "WR" run last year. The talk centered around what would he do in a "real" deuce, and that (in the eyes of most) had no bearing on how he would do against Bolt! When the rankings for the event were compiled at the end of the season, that race had no impact on how he was ranked - it was a nearly forgotten race. Come January, Manchester will be remembered by few as part of the fabric of the 2011 season. It will not be spoken with Pre, Weltklasse, Lausanne, Rieti, or any of the meets that will be contested on the oval this year.
As if the above were not enough, not only does competing in Manchester prevent the competitors from competing in other "legitimate" meets that particular weekend, but given the time it takes athletes like Bolt, Gay, Felix, et al to recover from their competitions (due to their intensity and strain on the body) it effectively removes them from competing in any "legitimate" meets for up to the next two to three weeks! THAT is a drain from start lists that the sport isn't in the position to sustain as we are already having difficulty getting our best to compete at the meets that truly define the sport! Yet, now that we've had Tyson blaze down the middle of Main Street, we may not have the opportunity to see him again until the National Championships. Was Manchester worth that? Because when he's not competing, Tyson is not a part of the conversation/marketing of any of our "real" meets. Just as Bolt, with his world wide stature now, does the sport little good if he is NOT competing. The fame only matters for the sport when the athletes compete.
If my choices as the architect of the sport are to A) have Tyson run a 150 down the street of Manchester, or B) have him run in Rome against Bolt and Powell, guess which one I'm advocating as having the most impact towards building the sport? I'm sorry but "B" is a no brainer for me! Because given the dearth of appearances we are already faced with from the stars of the sport, we cannot afford to throw any of them away on non consequential events.
Now, let me say that I am not so myopic that I don't understand that the average or even non fan needs a little extra from what many may consider to be a "boring" sport. Because many people, until they are hooked, see track as people "running around in a circle". I get that. Which is why I'm not against having bbq's, fairs, concerts and the like at our meets. Even for the die hard fan a meet can get a bit "slow" when your favorite events aren't being contested. So, yes, we should look at "adding" some things to our meets that have an entertainment value - to keep people in or around the stadium - if we are going to ask them to stay for an extended length of time. It's what I call "added value" - you get to see Bolt, Robles, Felix, Isinbayeva AND you get something else. But the "something else" should be an added value, not the reason people are there. And the reason for them to be there is to see GREAT COMPETITION. Always has been. Always will be.
Now, you may or may not agree with me, and I am curious to hear what you think. So there is a poll on the left and feel free to leave comments in the comments area.