Has the Usain Bolt era been good for athletics?

After completing an unprecedented hat trick of sprint golds at three Olympics, Usain Bolt looks set for a final lap of honour at next year’s London World Championships.

His looming retirement is, understandably, a source of trepidation to anyone associated with the sport. Ever since he announced himself to a global audience in Beijing eight years ago, Bolt has carried athletics on his broad shoulders.

When he does decide to hang up his spikes, Bolt will leave a sport facing an uncertain future.

The ever present issue of drugs continues to erode its already fragile credibility, while the comprehensive Olympic coverage offered by digital TV has further diluted a sceptical public’s attention. Its position as the undisputed highlight of an Olympic Games is no longer assured in an increasingly competitive field.

Bolt’s exit from the stage can hardly come at a worse time for the beleaguered sport.

But, has Bolt been good for athletics? Or rather, has media coverage of the Bolt phenomenon been good for athletics?

That might sound like an absurd proposition. After all, it’s getting hard to make a case against him being the greatest athlete of all time. He has brought a level of excitement perhaps never seen before, attracting countless casual viewers to the sport.

Bolt 2

However, the relentless media focus on him, to the detriment of other events and athletes, has had an unintended negative effect. By making Bolt bigger than athletics, the sport and the media have inadvertently created a void that just might be impossible to fill after his retirement.

Coverage of athletics during Bolt’s reign has increasingly felt like a one man show, with other events merely acting as filler to kill time between his appearances on the track. His eight year stranglehold over the sprints has been its own, self contained spectacle, floating above the wider sport.

It was evident in the BBC coverage of the Rio track and field programme, with endless overproduced VTs, inane studio discussions and hashtags dedicated to the Jamaican.

The evening of Bolt’s 100 metre final also featured the men’s 400 metres – probably the most competitive and exciting track event taking place in Rio. By way of build-up, the BBC could only spare time for Gabby Logan to hand over to the commentary team for the final. This despite the fact she was sat next to the man whose record Wayde Van Niekerk was about to break.

Indeed, Michael Johnson is a perfect illustration of the point. He is possibly the closest thing to an Usain Bolt over the last two decades – a completely dominant two event sprinter, running against the clock rather than the competition. His feats were comparable to those of Bolt.

Yet, Johnson shared equal billing with many contemporaries: Hicham El Guerrouj, Sergey Bubka, Wilson Kipketer, Jan Zelesny, Allen Johnson, Marion Jones, Merlene Ottey, Gail Deevers – to name just a handful (and ignoring later revelations in one case) All were household names and stars in their own right.

Who else could the same be said of now? Perhaps David Rudisha and Allyson Felix have an above average profile and, from a British perspective, Mo Farah and Jess Ennis-Hill. Nobody from any of the field events, which have been pushed further to the margins, comes close. Even the middle distances, once the sport’s blue riband events, are largely anonymous.

The vast swathes of empty seats on Bolt-free nights in Rio’s Olympic stadium told their own story. Where once a level of parity existed between events, the Bolt era has coincided with a narrowing of attention, with the 100 metres becoming a particular obsession.

There are of course other issues compounding the problem of Bolt overkill. Women’s athletics suffers enormously from the long list of decades old, tainted and unbeatable world records.

And, on a broader level, the sport has a huge and too often unacknowledged presentational problem. Big stadium arenas are completely ill-suited for live audiences (both in the stadium and at home) and present a huge obstacle to the progress of field events in particular. A complete re-think of how the sport is organised should be high on Sebastian Coe’s agenda.

There will always be a hierarchy of events in athletics to some degree, and Bolt was always going to be the star of the show. But, he is a lesson in the dangers of an individual becoming bigger than a sport. The fears that athletics has over a post Bolt world are well founded, but also partly of its own making.

To survive, athletics must capitalise on the interest Bolt has created, and use the opportunity presented by his retirement to once again find a broader appeal, giving greater exposure to a wider range of athletes and events.


Re-setting the clocks, why UK Athletics is on the right track

The tragicomedy of athletics staggers onwards. Round the bend, the sight of part two of WADAs report into IAAF corruption and Russian state sponsored doping looms into view. Former WADA chief Dick Pound, a stern sort not given to hyperbole, has already provided a little teaser. Apparently the sequel has a “wow factor” and is “even more explosive” than part one. Given the contents of the material released at the end of last year, that’s some going. I’ll certainly be watching. Thursday promises to be a long day for Sebastian Coe’s PR team.


Former WADA chief Dick Pound

In a bold, pre-emptive move UK athletics has released a 14 point manifesto to clean up the sport. Most eye-catching of all is their proposal to nullify all existing world records. A complete re-boot. It’s a divisive proposition that has predictably come in for a barrage of criticism. Whilst the idea is a flawed one – more on which later – and unlikely to ever be adopted, UK athletics (UKA) deserves credit. In publishing the manifesto UKA has at last started a meaningful conversation about the legitimacy crisis that faces athletics. Finally, a recognition that the mess the sport finds itself in is so dreadful that it can only be addressed by year zero, radical thinking

Yet, the proposal and accompanying statement from UKA exec Ed Warner illustrate one of the more curious aspects of this sorriest of sagas. In presenting the document, Warner said “the integrity of athletics was challenged as never before in 2015” and that it was at its “lowest point for decades”. However, the world records idea is itself a tacit admission that the sport has really had no integrity for the past 30 or so years. It might just be plumbing new depths.

This contradiction fits a more general pattern throughout the current crisis. The strange narrative that there is somehow something new or different here. That athletics is in crisis all of a sudden. That the public is only now slowly waking up to the scale of drug use. True, the complicity of the sport’s governing body in the whole sordid business is a novel feature. But, the fact of drug abuse being endemic in athletics has been well established for a very long time.

Athletics has lurched from one drug crisis to the next over the past quarter of a decade. The end of the cold war brought to light the scale of state sponsored doping in the Eastern bloc. Dr Wade Exum told us all about the extent of drug use in US athletics throughout the 1980s and the subsequent cover-ups. In the BALCO scandal we learned about designer pharmacists and commercial labs. Marion Jones, Tim Montgomery, Dwain Chambers, Asafa Powell, Tyson Gay, Kelli White, Rashid Ramzi, Trevor Graham. This could go on and on. Russian state sponsored doping and IAAF corruption is merely the latest chapter in a long running saga and by no means the seediest.

It’s this longer term perspective that explains the slow receding of athletics from the public consciousness. Just as drugs in the sport did not start and end with East Germans or Ben Johnson, athletics’ fate has not and will not be decided by recent events alone. The public’s faith in what they watch has been steadily eroded by scandal after scandal. Athletics has been in a state of near permanent crisis for over two decades.

This is the point that I think has been missed, perhaps wilfully, by many involved in the sport. They underestimate the extent to which athletics has already been discredited by much of the watching public. There is a degree of denial about the scale and nature of the problem. It was evident in the relentless focus on Justin Gatlin at last year’s World Championships and the embarrassing celebrations of the BBC team at his defeat. It was maddening to watch them reduce the issue to such a simplistic and personal level (with the honourable exception of Michael Johnson) It was also there in Sebastian Coe’s bizarrely defensive reaction to the Sunday Times’ allegations as a “declaration of war on my sport”. Athletics has a huge task on its hands to win people back over.


Coe’s position looks increasingly untenable

It’s in this context that UKAs efforts should be applauded.

At the very least it seeks to address one of the great absurdities in all of sport, let alone athletics. A cursory glance down the list of current world records and half a dozen immediately jump out. Everybody knows they are tainted. Nobody to this day has come remotely close to them, let alone bettered them. Yet there they are, etched in time and serving as a reminder in the bottom right hand corner of the TV screen that athletics is dirty. Regardless of anything else it’s one of the single biggest factors holding back women’s athletics.

There are some obvious practical problems with the idea. Chief amongst them is that athletics is presently in no position from a testing point of view to declare that any results achieved after a re-set should be considered any more valid than those achieved before. This is enough on its own to sink the proposal as a viable option.

The best suggestion I’ve encountered is the idea of making any records provisional, with a set window for re-testing before they are ratified as official world records. A drawback to this is what an acceptable arbitrary time limit would be. A flashing ‘NEW PROVISIONAL WORLD RECORD’ on screen doesn’t send out the best message or hold quite the same dramatic appeal either.

Much hard thinking remains and easy answers don’t exist. Still, UKA has been brave in taking a lead. Though its ideas are imperfect it’s heartening to finally see someone in athletics give an indication they understand the existential threat the sport faces and the type of thinking it will take to turn things round.

All eyes on Thursday.