October 2009
CALL ME CRAZY, but I’m concerned that Usain Bolt’s stratospheric popularity might have a bit of a negative effect on the sport. On the surface, the absolute opposite would seem to be true, right? He’s the highest-profile track athlete in many (make that many-many) years. He probably generates more ink and electrons than the next half-dozen tracksters combined. And I’m trying to tell you that’s a bad thing?

I am. It’s all in the Benjamins and where they end up.

In our story on the Paris Golden League meet (see p. 19), noted track writer Bob Ramsak said, “The fiscal realities of bringing Bolt to town also has its downside. The Paris meet… featured some of the thinnest fields in recent memory.”

The next weekend’s London meet, like Paris, sold a lot of tickets, but it too caught the eye of some intense followers of the sport in a small debate on the T&FN website. “I’m one of those hard-core fans who thought London was a bit thin,” wrote tandfman. “I’d probably have preferred stronger fields, rather than Bolt and Gay, especially since they weren’t racing each other.”

Said mump boy, “Some of the fields were soooooooooooo unbelievably thin it was embarrassing… get a big name and surround them with mediocrity, announce amazing competition and hope nobody notices.”

I have no idea what Bolt’s asking price is these days—the more power to him for getting it—but whatever it is, it certainly involves many zeroes. And that’s where the squeeze is put on meet promoters. Is one Bolt worth as much to  your meet as a dozen other mere stars? Given the chance to get him for your meet, I can’t imagine any promoter saying no. In the short run it certainly pays off.

But what about down the road? When it comes time to go to the same meet next year, and the excitement at having seen the World’s Fastest Human has worn off, does the average ticket buyer stop to think that he paid a lot of money for less than 10 seconds of activity? That there wasn’t enough interesting stuff provided by all those other people in the meet? It’s a tough equation to balance.

The other downside to having a star the magnitude of Bolt is that he can’t be everywhere, and those meets that don’t have him, I fear, are viewed as secondary events, no matter who else they have performing. A scenario where the superstar doesn’t just dominate the sport, he is the sport.

It has happened before.

In the mid/late ’80s track superstars didn’t come any bigger than Carl Lewis. As Bolt is becoming now, he was the sport. If your meet had him, you were guaranteed a success. If you didn’t—not so much. Indeed, I worked with domestic promoters in those days who said that if they didn’t have Lewis (with Jackie Joyner-Kersee perhaps being a somewhat acceptable substitute), they despaired of trying to sell their product to the ticket-buying public.

Nonetheless, Bolt’s hold on the public at this point has to be viewed—all things considered—as a great thing. He has given the sport a bit of swagger once again.