It is good to be the king, and it is good — unless and until there is evidence of doping, which it must be said could be tomorrow and could be never — to be Usain Bolt.
Because when you are Usain Bolt, you win, and when you win, you celebrate like he did Sunday at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, after yet another dominating performance by the Jamaican 4×100 men’s relay team to close out the 2013 track and field world championships.
He shouted, “Moscow!” into the microphone. He threw his spikes into the crowd. Barefoot on the track, he did his “to the world” pose and performed his take on a Cossack dance.
Most important, later in the evening, Bolt — perhaps alone among all the figures in track and field – has the gravitas to say what needed to be said about these championships. On a scale of 10, he said, they deserved a seven.
“It has been a different championships,” he said. “But it has not been the best. It got better over the days. More people got more relaxed. More people started smiling. There were more people in the stands. It picked up at the end but at the start it wasn’t as good.”
He added, referring generally to the Russians, “They don’t smile a lot but they’re cool people … and there are lots of beautiful women.”
The Russian journalists wanted more. “The food,” Bolt said, “was always the same. And I’m used to going to the 100-meter final with a stadium that’s packed, so that was different.
“So there were little things but nothing major and it was stuff that took me a while to get used to.”
If Bolt weren’t using the athlete access, he could have added that one entrance to the stadium was through a grass path by a parcourse set-up that was being used — despite security restrictions — by the locals. Or that access to the IAAF tent required going through not one, not two but three separate security stations — all 20 feet apart.
Or that the wireless access in the press seating was completely worthless. And that the main press center was a half-mile away from the journalists’ entrance to the stadium. The press bus stop was even farther.
Because Bolt doesn’t have to worry about such things, it’s not his problem that eating and drinking in Russia — we’re not talking alcohol, just regular stuff — is super-expensive. A bottle of water can run 170 rubles. That’s nearly $6.
Not to mention the controversy over Russia’s anti-gay law, which erupted over Swedish high jumper Emma Green Tregaro’s rainbow-painted fingernails and Russian pole vault champion Yelena Isinbayeva’s comments about Russians considering themselves “like normal, standard people,” and Russian sports minister Vitaly Mutko saying Sunday the law won’t infringe on the private lives of athletes and fans at next February’s Sochi Games.
In ways large and small, these championships set the stage for Russia to play host to the world in Sochi — and, as they always do, fixed track’s place in the world of sport for the here and now.
So — what of track and field?
Track geeks know that the sport’s next big thing is the world championships, in Beijing, back at the iconic Bird’s Nest, site of the 2008 Games, in 2015.
That is two years from now. Two years is a very long time.
Until then, track and field will be pretty much — at least for the casual fan — off the radar.
That is, to be obvious, nothing short of a disaster.
Yes, track’s governing body, the IAAF, puts on the regularly scheduled Diamond League series of meets, mostly in Europe, in the spring and summer. The IAAF deserves credit for that. But the meets are mostly relegated to — to use a newspaper analogy — the sports-section back pages.
Soccer is on, and on television, pretty much somewhere in the world seemingly every day, and the World Cup will go down next year in Brazil. The NBA has made tremendous inroads all over the globe with a season that runs from October until June. American football has already started and won’t conclude until February. Even the American baseball season runs from February until late October, sometimes early November.
The 2013 Diamond League will feature three more meets — Stockholm, Zurich, Brussels — but, unless there’s a lightning strike like last year’s 12.8 world-record by American 110-meter hurdler Aries Merritt at the Brussels meet, track won’t get much worldwide attention absent — regrettably, yet another — doping scandal.
The best thing track has going for it is Bolt.
He says he is thinking about running at the Commonwealth Games, next year in Glasgow.
To be, once again, obvious: the more Bolt is on the track, the more track is on track.
To be even more obvious: every sport needs stars.
It would make for a great bar bet to see if the average person anywhere in the world could name even five athletes not named Usain Bolt who competed in the Moscow championships.
Here’s the corollary to that bet: if asked to name a track or field star, that average person would probably say … Carl Lewis … or Michael Johnson. That shows you how much work track and field must do to bring itself out of its glory days and into the 21st century.
What Bolt didn’t say about the Moscow meet, because it’s not his job:
Great meets tend to produce world records. It just so happens that the swimming world championships in Barcelona immediately preceded the track meet in Moscow.
It is just four short years since the craziness of the plastic-suit era at the 2009 Rome world swim championships, when swimmers set 43 world records and experts were wondering if those marks would ever be threatened.
In Barcelona, the swimmers set six new world records, all by women. They set three in one day, the final Saturday of the meet. Katie Ledecky of the United States set two world records herself.
In Moscow — no world records.
Sure, there were world-class performances in Moscow: three championship records, 16 world-leading bests, 48 national records. In all, 18 nations won gold medals, 38 won a medal of some color.
Those totals are all the more intriguing considering who didn’t show because of injury (the likes of London 2012 men’s 800 gold medalist David Rudisha) or doping (significant cases before the meet in Russia and Turkey as well as failed positives involving U.S. sprinter Tyson Gay and, among others, Jamaicans Asafa Powell, Sherone Simpson and Veronica Campbell-Brown).
FINA, swimming’s governing body, introduced high-diving at the Barcelona championships. It was a huge hit — action sports, if you will, for the water crowd.
The track championship is still the same meet it is, and has been, for years.
A few thoughts:
There’s no rock or hip-hop music at a track meet the way there is at a baseball game, when a reliever is introduced in the late innings. What if, for instance, each of the sprinters in the 100, 200 and 400 was allowed to pick a riff by which he or she was introduced?
What about putting wireless in the stands — in a robust way — so that fans could really follow along on their cellular phones or tablets? The IAAF iPhone and iPad app, introduced before the Moscow worlds, was genuinely great. Who actually knew about it?
For that matter, nine days is too long — way, way, way too long — for this meet. Make it six, max. That’s long enough still for the marathons, the distance events, everything. And if it’s not, then it’s time for some creative thinking about how to do this championship differently.
Every sport has to change, and grow. There are sound reasons swimming and gymnastics were elevated this year into the top rank of the International Olympic Committee’s financial tier, along with track and field — a slot the IAAF had for years occupied, alone.
Outside Luzhniki Stadium stands a statue of Lenin. Thus he — in a matter of speaking — oversaw everything here. So he and perhaps his most famous aphorism are worth bearing in mind as the IAAF and its stakeholders pack up and begin the two-year trek to Beijing, some serious thinking in order between now and then about what its proponents believe is — and could again be for all — the finest sporting endeavor humankind has ever dreamed up.
As Lenin said: what is to be done?