Thursday, 20 August 2009

9:58 - Why Usain Bolt Matters

Dean Hardman discusses what Usain Bolt's 9:58 in Berlin means for athletics.

The sport of track and field athletics has meant a lot to me for as long as I can remember. I just about recall as a four year-old running in the pre-school race at my primary school’s annual sports day – my mother tells me that I did shuttle runs in the back garden as a “warm-up” for the event – and throughout my teenage years I could be found spending evenings and weekends running around (or, more often, sitting besides) a local track. For me, it has always been the purest of sporting endeavours – people simply pitting themselves against others using nothing but their own bodies to propel themselves or simple implements faster, further or higher. It’s democratic, too. You don’t need lots of fancy equipment; you just need determination and somewhere to run, so the poorest in society can compete against the richest. It’s one of only a handful of sports where women’s events share the spotlight with the men’s and the geographical spread of participating nations means that countries as diverse as the USA and Ethiopia, Namibia and Japan have had success on the global stage in recent years. It should then, be the most popular sport in the world, after the all-conquering football.

But it isn’t. And the reason it isn’t, is because of performance enhancing drugs. Not so long ago, the television viewing figures for athletics in Britain were fantastic, as millions of people (in pre multi-channel days) tuned in to see the exploits of the likes of Seb Coe, Steve Ovett, Steve Cram, Daley Thompson, Tessa Sanderson and Linford Christe. The Seoul Olympics in 1988 were a turning point. Ben Johnson, the Canadian winner of the 100m was found to have taken anabolic steroids and over the subsequent 20 years the sport has found itself embroiled in drugs scandal after drugs scandal. Media coverage and interest ceased to focus upon performances – by the middle of this decade the back pages of newspapers barely mentioned athletics results, let alone reports of meetings – and instead devoted space to track and field only when the likes of Dwain Chambers, Marian Jones and Justin Gatlin had found themselves in disgrace. The sport, up until recently, had become the preserve of the aficionados only. Nobody else seemed interested.

That is why Usain Bolt is so important. His recent world record of 9.58s, accompanied by his Beijing Olympic records in the 100m and 200m completely obliterated Ben Johnson’s drug fuelled times of the 1980s and have made athletics front and back page news for the right reasons once again. Globally, media coverage has shifted from the ultra negative to, as Colin Jackson might say, the 'super positive'. Bolt has become the poster boy for the sport, a global icon to match and maybe even supersede the likes of Roger Federer and Tiger Woods. His exuberant behaviour and incredible athletic feats make him, and the sport, something that people want to see, and through him the sport can hopefully recover a place in the sporting public’s affections through increased positive media coverage. Most importantly, his precocious performances as a 16 year-old make his performances believable for the media and the viewing public, and that should help to restore a once great sport to what would be, in my opinion, its rightful place.

(Photo credit: Permissions)

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