LONDON – Surveying the state of the sport he dominated for so many years, running great Haile Gebrselassie sees a bleak future.
Despite the superstar status of Usain Bolt, Gebrselassie is deeply concerned about the shortage of elite-level events with true global appeal for fans and, just as importantly, sponsors.
“Athletics has to change a little bit, bring in new ideas, new concepts — otherwise it’s going to be just a bit boring to watch,” Gebrselassie said Wednesday. “I don’t know how many people are interested in just watching running for two hours — maybe soccer, yes, but running we have to upgrade the situation . . . attract more of an audience (and give) what they like.”
While the awe-inspiring performances produced by Bolt at the last two Olympics have given a major boost to the sport, Gebrselassie thinks the Jamaican’s mass-appeal could be masking deeper-lying issues that are not being addressed.
“Many stadiums are full because of him,” Gebrselassie said. “What will happen after Usain Bolt, who will be the next star? How many spectators will come not just to watch (Bolt)? If you don’t have Usain Bolt in the next two, three years we will be in trouble.”
Few figures in the sport have better credentials to deliver such a brutal assessment than Gebrselassie, who built his reputation as one of the most complete distance runners ever by setting world records in the 5,000, 10,000, half marathon and marathon.
Though not pushing for a role himself, the 40-year-old Ethiopian is urging the IAAF leadership to address the lack of major track meets beyond those on the Diamond League circuit, and cross-country events where he gained vital experience in the 1990s.
“There is no crisis for soccer, soccer is getting bigger, and other sports are getting bigger,” Gebrselassie said. “Do you think the financial crisis is just affecting athletics? I don’t think (so). We have to attract the audience; we have to attract the sponsors. If the sponsors think nobody cares about athletics, who is going to sponsor you?”
It’s not all about cash, though. Gebrselassie is also worried that a lack of long-distance events is making athletes aim too early for marathons, which could lead to health ramifications. Fellow Ethiopian Tsegaye Mekonnen made his marathon debut in January in Dubai at just 18 — and won.
“When I heard that age, I was very shocked,” Gebrselassie said. “Can he win again? There’s a question mark. He’s killing his body; we are breaking his bones by sending him in the wrong competition.
“It’s why the youngsters have to have a track, 10K (events), half marathons. For those things we have to work hard with the IAAF.”
Gebrselassie is in London to pace a world-record attempt in the marathon on Sunday, and Mekonnen is among the strong field, which also includes world record holder Wilson Kipsang and reigning champion Tsegaye Kebede.
To highlight the astonishment over Mekonnen’s ability to challenge the elite marathon runners while still a teenager, the London Marathon official hosting Wednesday’s news conference pushed him to tell everyone his age.
“Eighteen years old,” the Ethiopian confirmed.