Whatever became of athletics? It’s fallen nearly as far as show jumping and that is a long way. But the world needs athletics: it is the purest sport. Lots of countries can’t row or sail or do equestrianism, tennis or golf. Anyone, anywhere can run, jump and throw.
But where is athletics now? Can you name the fastest man in the world this year over 100m?* Who are the best middle-distance runners?
In the 1970s and 1980s everyone knew the names of countless athletes, domestic and foreign. Sebastian Coe, Steve Ovett, Daley Thompson, Tessa Sanderson, Fatima Whitbread, Steve Cram, Allan Wells and Zola Budd would take on the likes of Carl Lewis, Merlene Ottey, Ed Moses, Marita Koch, FloJo and Yifter the Shifter.
Sometimes the fascination was wondering whether performances were strictly legal, or if the girl lining up in lane five had had a shave that morning. But we all knew about it, talked about it, opined about how good someone was coming off the bend. Coe vs Ovett was as big as Borg vs McEnroe. Tessa vs Fatima wasn’t far behind. When Coe was competing, no one could name a cyclist, but could trot out a score of superstar athletes. Now that he’s running world athletics, we can all name a dozen cyclists, but athletes not so much. It’s not drugs damage; it’s profile. Usain Bolt held the sport together for a decade, but there weren’t many household names. Mo Farah and Jess Ennis were decent support acts.
The athletics season began in earnest at the weekend, in the Diamond League meeting in Gateshead when the brilliant Dina Asher-Smith defied Arctic temperatures and biting winds to see off her rivals in the 100m. (She should be Dame Dina if she wins the Olympic 100m — and if anyone notices.) Is there another British medal contender anyone can name outside the wondrous Katarina Johnson–Thompson? Sadly, because of an Achilles injury, the only place you can see Katarina now is in adverts for Müller Light yoghurt. For most young people, I fear, KJT sounds like something they wouldn’t want sprinkled in their drink during freshers week.
Athletics needs the Olympics to happen, which is why Coe is pushing so hard, despite Japanese reluctance. Minor sports such as fencing and badminton will always be minor because they always have been. They know their place, but swimming, gymnastics and athletics are the stars of the Olympics.
The world’s top athletes should be ultimate A-listers, seen in the royal box at Wimbledon, at the Oscars, waving the chequered flag at Monaco. And they should be seen at Tokyo 2021. These Games might be a duff show without the fans, yet they will be a heart-starter for athletics.
Coe knew there had to be life after Bolt; but he hasn’t done much to prepare for it. If these Games are scrapped again, athletics might complete its fall to the level of present-day show jumping. David Broome, Harvey Smith and Hickstead were all household names once.
Stat of the week must be Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford giving away £20 million of his £16 million wealth to charity: yes that’s right, 125 per cent of his riches according to the Sunday Times Giving List. Understandably it put him top of the philanthropy chart, ahead of such renowned benefactors as Lord Sainsbury and Elton John. I’ll leave it to the accountants to explain why this doesn’t leave Rashford living in a garden shed in Moss Side, but whatever the explanation, this has to be just another example of what an exceptional young man he is.
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*The fastest man this year over 100m is the American Trayvon Bromell.
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