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.
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.