The Fall Of The Track

Every four years, athletics becomes a global event as a city host the Olympics. Hundreds of athletes representing countries from all over the world gather in one location for a two-week spectacle of speed, strength, endurance, skill and mental fortitude. Though the athletes represent a country, most of the young men and women who compete do so individually, even often times competing against fellow countrymen. With the exception of a few team events, athletics is the ultimate individual sport.
Over the past few decades or so the sport has been hit hard by drug and cheating scandals. Along with a few other factors, this has seen the interest in athletics dwindle. For the athletes, even some at the top end, the fact that the globally recognised athletic events – Olympics, World Championships and Commonwealth Games – are billed as amateur events, meaning they do not get paid to compete, hurts the sport.
Unlike other well-known sports, team and individual, Athletics is one of the few that has no financial recognition – prize money – for its top events. Track meetings around the world invite and pay top athletes to participate in their events, but unless one is a big fan of athletics outside of the Diamond league events you would be hard pressed to name an upcoming track event.
As I alluded to, the image of the sport has been tarnished ever since the heady days of Carl Lewis in his pomp, getting bested in the blue riband event of the one hundred metres by a drug fuelled Ben Johnson. A retrospective drug test showed that all but one of the field in that infamous race was using some illegal substance. The image of the stuttering, bulging eyed, Johnson, suited the powerful U. S. anti doping narrative of the time. It also helped that he was a Canadian by way of Jamaica.
Some years later, with low level, not quite top tier athletes intermittently being thrown to the wolves, to appease and justify the existence of the anti-doping agency, a big drug scandal hit athletics again. This time it was a coach and a lot of top athletes were implicated. Antonio Conte was a self-styled nutritionist and coach who, in the nineties, supplied, at the time, an undetectable anabolic steroid to high-level athletes across sports. The Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative or BALCO as it came to be known, tarnished and ruined the careers of many athletes.
Marion Jones, a darling of the U. S. sprint team at the time, was brought down by the scandal. A winner gold medals in the World Championships and Olympics. Her Olympic medals were all rescinded after her admittance to taking performance enhancing drugs. Jones, who had commanded tens of thousands of dollars in appearance fees before the scandal, was banned for two years and jailed for six months. She retired shortly afterwards.
Athletics has had a resurgence since the twenty-twelve games and the emergence of the charismatic, Jamaican superstar sprinter Usain Bolt, who was defending gold medals from the previous games four years earlier. Coupled with a generation of elite athletes all peaking in the same year – Mo Farah, Jessica Ennis (now Ennis-Hill, athletes love a double barrelled name) and Greg Rutherford to name a few – the sport was really to the fore for a period after one of the most successful games ever.  The sport’s popularity will be tested when both Bolt and Farah follow the recently retired Ennis-Hill from track and field at the end of the twenty-sixteen season.
Track and field are in desperate need of an overhaul. It seems ridiculous in these days of fanfare and whooping for darts tournaments – a pub game no less – that men who would puff running up stairs, play for considerable prize money, yet in track and field where the training is so hard and an injury can derail an entire season, they are still expected to turn out for their country. For free.
For athletics to flourish and to capture the public imagination, it needs to be more accessible and to have people believe again. it also needs to recognise the allure of prize money in sport to a younger, more consumerist generation.

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