ALL SPORTS LIVE AND DIE BY THEIR STARS.
Oh sure, the big ball-sports are in theory about the winning team, but when you get right down to it, that appeal is always largely geographically centered. What really captivates people is individual star power. Track & field is very lucky right now to have a mega-luminary like Usain Bolt.
And I say that fully remembering my column of October ‘09, which began, “Call me crazy, but I’m concerned that Usain Bolt’s stratospheric popularity might have a bit of a negative effect on the sport.”
My thrust was that now—just as it was when Carl Lewis ruled a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away—having too much of a sport’s success depending on one person runs the risk of diluting the sport’s overall popularity.
As noted in our Big Question about this year’s Diamond League (see p. 13), those who have Bolt don’t need anything else. Those who don’t need big matchups, and those aren’t easy to come by.
(For the record, as of the end of January, this is Bolt’s known schedule for 2012 before the Olympics: in February a couple of 400s—flat or relays—in Jamaica; on May 5 the Jamaica Invitational; on May 31 the Rome Diamond League 100; on June 7 the Oslo Diamond League 100; June 28–July 1 the Jamaican Olympic Trials.)
But all my misgivings aside, Bolt is good, even great for the sport. He’s the gold standard by which the world judges speed, and whether you say “Usain” or “Bolt” the average citizen knows of whom you speak.
Now the other shoe drops. While Bolt represents the planet well on an intergalactic basis, let’s think smaller. We’re talking the USofA here. Who’s the American face of the sport? The answer, I fear, is nobody. And if that’s true, we’re in a world of hurt.
As I said to begin with, the sport needs superstars to stay alive. And to put a finer point on it, staying alive in Nation X requires a star from Nation X. The kind of person that the TV networks build a big campaign around (to be sure, a warm & fuzzy campaign that will have the hardcore fan wanting to upchuck before the Olympics is over, but that’s the way the game is played).
I realize that I run the risk of offending a lot of truly fine U.S. athletes when I say none of them—at least currently—pack the gravitas to inspire the nation. Not even any of the 9 who won individual golds at the World Championships.
It’s not so many years ago that Tyson Gay, Allyson Felix and Sanya Richards-Ross seemed to be on a career path that might elevate them into national icons, but their peak moments are already a surprising amount of time in the past.
But a knight in the proverbial shining armor always emerges from the gloom. My pick for the dragonslayer the country needs will be… the envelope please… a decathlete.
Having had plenty of opportunity to see both in action not only on the track and field, but also in “public,” I’m predicting that the next dude fit for the round table will be Trey Hardee or Ashton Eaton.
I’d love to say it could be both of them, but as The Highlander explained, “There can be only one.”
E. Garry Hill