By Robert Taylor, Special to Trackalerts.com
With 2016 upon us, one wonders what the sports of athletics would have been like if Usain Bolt were not around in 2015. Would the media, especially the British press be attacking Justin Gatlin at the same level? Would fans find 2015 world championship exciting?
So many believe Bolt is the main reason for the survival of athletics and it is a difficult task to challenge such notion taking into consideration the action and attitude of casual fans. My anecdotal observation is that Bolt is first name to come off the tongue many fans when asked the question about which athlete (s) they know. The constant barrage of drug news on athletics do no good for creating and maintaining fan base which is unfortunate but would the sports survive without Bolt?
I am more optimistic about the sports and strongly believe that with or without the popularity of Bolt, the sports will survive. I am not about to belittle or diminish Bolt’s contribution to fan support of athletics but I find it difficult to believe support would fall significantly if he were not around. Indispensability is not as easy as many would want to believe. Whenever a great contributor leaves any profession or trade, life continue and sometimes new competitors rise up to continue if not improve the situation.
The next question is who will step forward to carry the sports? I do not believe it will necessarily be any single athlete. All the other major sports form fan base outside of nationalities. Athletics on the other hand are mostly nationalistic. Even the media coverage is highly nationalistic. Fans tend to be nationalistic and have a willingness to support their athlete regardless of the transgression such athlete have committed and less willing to forgive athletes from other countries.
The media on a whole is not much different. With this situation as it is, I have not seen any top performer with the charisma or aura that causes popular following like Bolt. Usually when there is a vacuum something or someone fills it. The competitiveness of the 400m might be a part of it as well as the new breed of sprinters that rise. Success has a tendency to pull people out their shell and find that personality that is infectious enough to draw fan support. This is what we saw with Bolt as he grows to become the icon he is today.
With 2016 projected to be most likely Bolt last year in championship races, we are about to see the end of an era. Being victorious in this Olympics would be one of the greatest crowning of a champion we could ever see. On the other hand, if Bolt should lose, what would be the reaction by fans? Some may say after what happened during the 2015 athletic season, Bolt would definitely turn up in much better shape and sharpness. Thus believe any thought of Bolt losing is absurd. Others may say despite Gatlin improve performances in 2015 and Linford Christie 1992 Barcelona Olympic championship, the shorts sprints is generally a young man race where 30 years of age winner is not a given and Bolt will be a few days shy of 30 years by the Rio Olympics.
I for one is not looking forward to the day there is no Bolt but when the reality kicks in I will adjust my mind to it and so will most fans. The idea that the sports will die or greatly diminished when Bolt exit the scene is a bit farfetched and simple minded. This thought process is ignoring the fact that human on a whole for years have found ways to adapt and adjust to their circumstances and surroundings to survive. There are far too many great marketing minds and too many athletes and events for the sports to go down when one person leaves. As great as Bolt is and as great a shadow as he cast over the sports, athletics will survive and thrive after he leaves. There were Pele, Michael Jordan and I believe when Serena leaves women tennis it will not falter. It will be still as strong as before similarly to when Bjorn Borg leaved, men tennis did not falter.
Athletics problem is that there are more back biting by the athletes than any other sports and the media coverage of individual transgressions creates an impression that athletics is the dirtiest sport. No knowledgeable sports reporter actually believe athletics is the dirtiest sport, privately they would say far from it but the way they report athletics drug incidents is far more comprehensively negative than they do with other sports. Take the example of Asafa Powell and Sherone Simpson incident. They tested positive for a stimulant as were determined, yet they were compared to and included with those who tested positive with heavy performance enhancing drugs.
When these two athletes sued, the manufacturer of the supplement that caused their positive test settled with them out of court. This got no coverage from the major media who made performance enhancing drug use in athletics their crusade. The inconsistency shown with reporting of guilt as against the relative silence when innocence possibility exists highlights the bias towards negative media coverage. This situation is the biggest issue athletics is facing for the future. Losing Bolt will surely be a big loss but history shows recovery is possible. Getting the media to be more balanced is a far more difficult task. With the Russia situation being the prominent athletics coverage around the world, this is the dilemma and problem athletics will face for its near future at the very least.
Bolt will be sadly missed and it may affect fan support in the short-term. Looking on the situation as it is, will athletics governing body be able to push the sport to evolve to the point where athletic performances trump questions of performance enhancing drugs like we see with the other major sports? Even with Bolt around this is and will be athletics most difficult challenge to overcome when he leaves.
**The views expressed in this article are those of the author (Robert Taylor) and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, trackalerts.com.