I REMEMBER THE EVENING WELL. It was November 21, 2009, at a ritzy hotel in Monaco (hey, it’s a dark and lonely job, but somebody has to do it). The IAAF, with great fanfare, rolled out its new concept—one designed to breathe life into the international circuit—the Diamond League. The core principle was near and dear to my heart: “guaranteed” head-to-head competition among the sport’s biggest names.
The organizers proudly announced, “The IAAF Diamond League is especially pleased to confirm that with the racing commitments of Bolt, Gay and Powell secured, every one of the 14 meetings will see at least one of these sprint stars compete; many meetings will have two of them in action and a lucky few will have the three fastest men on show.”
The speedy trio were among 9 of the sport’s biggest names who were designated as “IAAF Diamond League Ambassadors.” Unfortunately, that proved to be akin to being one of the first into King Tut’s tomb.
The curse struck six of them: Bolt’s season came to an end on August 6th, but that was longer than countryman Powell’s (July 16). Gay’s year had a hiatus between May 16 and July 3. Sanya Richards-Ross was felled at USATF. Kenenisa Bekele didn’t run on the track at all. Yelena Isinbaeva burned out and didn’t vault outdoors.
Despite the injuries, the sprint trio did appear in 12 of the 14 DL meets (9 in 100, 3 in the 200), but the sum total of the promised gaudy sequence of head-to-heads expressed itself as Gay beating Bolt in Stockholm, Gay beating Powell in Gateshead and Bolt beating Powell in Paris. Not good enough. Not the IAAF’s fault, but nonetheless not good enough.
With that kind of shortfall in the DL’s first year, it’s only logical to expect that no path has gone unexplored in making sure that Year 2 fulfills the promises of the rollout. Apparently there are some/too many roads not taken. As noted in Last Lap (see p. 46), Gay’s agent says his client is unlikely to meet Bolt before the World Championships, which means that Zürich (DL 100 final) and Brussels (DL 200 final) would be about it.
What we have been “guaranteed,” so far, is Bolt vs. Powell in Rome, and Gay vs. Powell in Birmingham and London. That’s a far cry from “many meetings will have two of them in action and a lucky few will have the three fastest men on show.”
Which leads to the many-carat gorilla in the room. Why? Two reasons.
The first, one which drags our sport down to the level of boxing, is that too many superstars avoid head-to-head competition. It’s understandable, since you can put in a claim for No. 1 so long as you’re not losing to anybody. And, in a sense, this can actually be good for the sport, because the anticipation of a summit meeting only makes the actual meeting more exciting.
The second, and most germane, is as they said in Jerry Maguire, “Show me the money.” The superduperstars can claim so much in appearance fees that few meets can afford two of them. Does Meet X really want to burn a huge portion of its budget on one event, or is it better served just buying the one big name for that event, and then making other events topflight with similar purposes?
The DL concept was supposed to find a way around these problems. What is it?