Netflix Gets Up Close and Very Personal With World’s Fastest Sprinters

EVER SINCE NETFLIX debuted the breakout hit docuseries Formula 1: Drive to Survive in 2019, then followed up with similar behind-the-scenes shows following the professional golf and tennis circuits, track & field fans have been clamoring for similar treatment. Those wishes will finally be answered on July 2 when the streaming service releases Sprint, a six-episode series featuring the world’s fastest men and women.

“Fundamentally we were fans of the sport,” says executive producer Paul Martin, the British co-founder of Box to Box, the production company behind the series (as well as the Formula 1, golf and tennis shows). “We all grew up watching the 100 meters and being in awe, from Carl Lewis to Linford Christie, through to Usain Bolt. I don’t think it’s a secret that the entire sport felt that there was a vacuum post-Bolt. We felt that there was an opportunity for us, because what these athletics do on a day-to-day basis is extraordinary.”

Indeed, the shadow cast by the charismatic eight-time Olympic gold medalist was considerable. “Usain Bolt was such a huge talent that almost took the spotlight off of the rest of the sport,” says executive producer Warren Smith, who sent a team out to Jamaica and Florida to gauge the potential for a track-&-field-centered show. “What they came back with was that this world was just full of personality. Not only are they the fastest humans, but also brilliant characters, brilliant personalities. And I think that’s when we realized that there’s something in this show.”

When it came time to deciding which athletes to follow, there was more to consider than just performances. “It’s always a combination of things. You have to go in with an open mind because some characters are not as big as you expect them to be, some give more access than others, and you always have to take that into account,” says Martin. “And also, you have to have people who want to be front and center a bit as well. You can’t force people to take part if they’re hesitant or they feel like it would be too much of a distraction.”

He admits that they lucked out when the sprinters who would become the biggest stars of the show — Noah Lyles and Sha’Carri Richardson — checked all their boxes. Flamboyant stars who reveled in the spotlight, both Americans came up with stunning wins at the ’23 World Championships in Budapest, the climactic event of the first season of Sprint.

“The cast almost chooses themselves in some ways,” Martin says. “They rise out, the more you shoot, and I think Noah clearly was somebody that wants the spotlight and wants to put himself out there as the face of athletics. That was a gift, and to have him have the season that he had, culminating with winning the 100 in Budapest, was amazing for us.”

Indeed, Lyles is the central figure in the series, which follows him from his life in Florida (including his close relationship with his mother, Keisha Caine, and his coach, Lance Brauman) and on the Diamond League circuit in Rome and London on the road to Budapest.

“Everybody has their own vibe. I’m a showman,” Lyles says in the opening episode. “I feel almost like an artistic director. You have all these other athletes [in other sports] as stars, rock stars, popular wherever they go. Track & field needs to be the same. And I’m not gonna be happy until I see that accomplished.… I’m a true believer that the moment isn’t bigger than me. The moment was made for me.”

“The cast almost chooses themselves in some ways,” Martin says. (COURTESY NETFLIX)

Encouraging athletes to open up, even extroverts like Lyles and Richardson, requires time, patience and skills that the Box to Box crew has perfected in their previous docuseries.

“We have some great producers and directors who have now done a lot of these shows for us, and they know how to read a room or a training space and know when to get out of the way and when to start talking,” Smith says. “It’s about building relationships so you’re not just another sports TV crew, you’re not the live TV, and you’re building that trusted relationship over a long period of time.”

Among those offering their insight and analysis are sprinting icons Michael Johnson, Allyson Felix, Ato Boldon and Bolt, who sings Lyles’ praises.

“Noah Lyles is a great athlete,” Bolt says. “He’s full of energy. He has the crowd. Mentally, he’s very strong. He believes in himself.”

Olympic champion Marcell Jacobs of Italy and Zharnel Hughes of Great Britain, who had set a world-leading time of 9.83 at the ’23 NYC Grand Prix, are also featured heavily on the men’s side. Both candidly discuss the expectations that weigh on them, as well as the relentless criticism they face when they underperform. Hughes talks about being traumatized after false-starting in the Olympic final in Tokyo.

Among the women, Richardson and Jamaica’s Shericka Jackson are the main protagonists, centered around their simultaneous quests to win the 100 world title. Illustrating the incredible access that the Box to Box crew earned is a tender moment between Richardson and her coach, Dennis Mitchell, when he gives her an encouraging pep talk after the 100 semifinals in Budapest, where she barely squeaked into the final.

The dynamics among the top Jamaicans — Jackson and gold medalists Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Elaine Thompson-Herah — are particularly illuminating. Their shifting training-group situations over the past few years have an almost soap-opera quality.

“When you let all athletes train together it can be very challenging because you tend to race each other in practice,” says Thompson-Herah, who later adds that, “I think that’s what the fans, the people don’t understand: If you want to be great, you have to be selfish.”

Though Fraser-Pryce is interviewed, the producers would have gladly put more of a spotlight on the five-time 100 world champion who will attempt to win a third Olympic century gold in Paris 16 years after her first. “We got a little bit of access, but I would have loved to have more with her, because she’s been the face of the sport for so long and it’s just incredible what she does,” Martin says. “We tried and tried and tried to really get her in, but for whatever reason it didn’t quite come through, and that was a shame.”

Other athletes featured include Americans Gabby Thomas and Fred Kerley, who makes no secret of his disdain for Lyles. Following their contentious pre-meet press conference in Budapest, the ’22 world champ offers his take on his gregarious, attention-loving rival. “I ain’t come here to cheese to the camera,” Kerley says. “It’s cool that he do it, but I’m here to run fast, to kill you, bust your head and go about my business.”

Now that Kerley appears to be regaining his top form, the second season of Sprint — which is already in production and follows the athletes on the road to Paris — should be even more entertaining. ◻︎