By Zaheer E. Clarke
(Published September 1, 2015, in the Jamaica Observer)
Since 2008, Usain Bolt has been an indomitable force in athletics. He has won an unbelievable four individual Olympic gold medals and seven individual World Championship gold medals. This is no easy feat. However, in most sports, when an individual keeps dominating a sport by humongous margins, the lustre emitted and attentiveness he or she often attracts subside beyond a dwarf star. If they have no real competition, the ratings will fall, the fans will look at their superlative performances or achievements with a passing interest, and its position or rung will slip down the ladder of popularity or TV ratings among other sports.
Undeniably, Usain Bolt is an ultimate showman. His performances are accompanied with confidence and entertainment which attract large media attention, sponsors and fans. However, due to Bolt’s sporadic appearances on the circuit due to injuries, and his coach’s or his team’s circumspect management of his health and career — rightfully so — track and field’s grab on the public domain and amongst the sponsors wanes in his long absences.
Track and field is not one of the major day-by-day sports in the world, even though, among one-off events, it’s a part of the largest viewership. The Olympics still has the most eyeballs on it, but that’s every four years. Football, motorsport, and other sporting disciplines have an asphyxiated hold on the daily ratings and fans’ interest. Track and field does not.
In 2011, and early 2012, when Bolt’s assault on the world records was seemingly behind him, the threat or rumours of Yohan Blake beating him captured the public’s interest. Bolt’s false start in the 100m at the 2011 World Championships postponed the fans’ savoury, and the anticipation of the eager clash lingered until the following year.
When Blake beat Bolt at the 2012 Jamaica National Championships, in both the 100m and 200m, every major news or sports outlet carried the story. The discussions of Bolt potentially losing his Olympic titles in London perfused every water cooler assembly or curb side congregation. The bets came in all around, and so too did the fans and journalists to witness the moment. Fans reportedly lost their houses, substantial amounts of cash and their dignity when Bolt beat Blake in both the 100m and 200m finals. Nevertheless, the closest Blake got to Bolt was 0.12 seconds, in both the 100m and 200m, a shade ahead of how close Gay got to Bolt in the 2009 World Championships: 0.13 seconds.
In 2014 and 2015, with Bolt mostly absent due to injuries, former Olympic and World Champion, Gatlin, in 28 consecutive unbeaten races has kept athletics in the spotlight, and offered us a fitting competitor to challenge Bolt. His rise or “bullying” of the circuit, as Bolt put it, has kept the sport in the public domain and raised questions in the fans’ minds about his doping past, him possibly beating Bolt, and his legitimacy or illegitimacy at possibly winning the IAAF Athlete of the Year Award. These questions, doubts, and new policies have all kept track and field in the headlines of the major sports and news cycles for the past two years.
In sports, we would be remiss if we failed to remember that the popularity of a particular discipline is not only tied to their top athlete’s performances, world records or otherwise, but also the level of competition they faced in achieving these magnificent performances.
For example, Michael Jordan’s greatness was not only a matter of his championship titles or his scoring titles, but also the level of competition he faced day to day during the regular season and in the playoffs. The likes of Larry Bird, Isaiah Thomas (and the Detroit Bad Boys), Magic Johnson, Reggie Miller, Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, Clyde Drexler, and Karl Malone all contributed to not only Jordan’s greatness, but also the ratings and popularity of the sport of basketball worldwide. In a similar manner, Gatlin has done the same for athletics, by offering fierce competition to Bolt.
We need to be thankful to Gatlin for the person he is, his past, and what he did these last two seasons. If Bolt was all-conquering last season and this season, not as many would have tuned in watching the 100m and 200m races. It would have been considered a foregone conclusion. The ratings would have plummeted, and the only drawing card would be Bolt adding another diamond in his sparkling crown as king of athletics.
However, with Bolt having chinks in his armour all season, and Gatlin threatening to overthrow the ‘King’, the world stood, watched, and celebrated Bolt’s victory — by only 0.01 seconds — in the 100m, and again in the 200m by his normal margins. For the 100m, they said it was Bolt’s greatest race, his greatest moment, and not only because of the injuries he overcame, but also because he overcame Gatlin and only by 0.01 seconds! As a matter of fact, no one has come this close to beating Bolt at a major championship.
As such, there has been a prevailing thought among fans and journalists alike that Justin Gatlin, being beaten by Usain Bolt in the 100m and 200m finals at the 2015 IAAF World Championships has saved athletics. Some individuals have vilified Gatlin and canonised Bolt in this polar discussion of good versus evil. Bolt may have won the gold medals, but, Gatlin, take a bow; you are the real saviour of athletics over the past two years. Without you, we wouldn’t be talking about the sport the way we do.
Until next time…
© Zaheer Clarke