Usain Bolt bestrode athletics as a colossus for a decade but his retirement in 2017 left a massive publicity void the sport has struggled to fill, despite a succession of amazing performances by a string of richly talented athletes.
Bolt’s combination of incredible speed, big-race delivery and joyous personality helped ensure athletics maintained its position as the No. 1 sport of the Olympics, with the 100 meters, which the Jamaican won three times alongside three 200-meter golds, the absolute blue riband event of every Games.
Replacing him as such a crowd and sponsor-pleasing draw was always going to be a tough challenge, possibly an impossible one, as athletics fights an increasingly difficult battle for TV ratings.
The sport has always had a slightly uncomfortable internal relationship between track and field, with the runners generally hogging the limelight while the throwers, jumpers and vaulters battle for recognition, in every sense.
At his peak, Bolt was probably the world’s most recognizable sportsperson and certainly one of the most marketable. In contrast, the two 2020 athletes of the year were Swedish pole vaulter Mondo Duplantis and Venezuelan triple jumper Yulimar Rojas.
Both had magnificent, world-record breaking seasons and are massive names in their homelands but, partly because of the “second-fiddle” nature of their events, their names remain largely unknown to the general public.
There is a similar challenge with the marathon, where Eliud Kipchoge is undoubtedly at the same level as Bolt in terms of domination of an iconic event.
His breaking of the two-hour barrier, albeit “unofficial,” put him on the front pages in 2019, and the world record holder will certainly be big news when he defends his Olympic title in Sapporo. Yet, the marathon remains something of an event for purists, and though Kipchoge is a humble, thoughtful and articulate man, his wider profile remains relatively modest.
There is no getting away from the fact that sprints remain the biggest draw and World Athletics and the International Olympic Committee must have been rubbing their hands together in glee at the emergence of Sha’Carri Richardson.
Flamboyant, confident, outspoken on social media and hugely talented, the 21-year-old American blew through the sport this year in a whirlwind of blue hair and nails and looked set to be the focus of a thousand camera lenses in Tokyo, only to incur a ban for smoking marijuana during the U.S. trials last month.
Also watching from home in the States will be the reigning 100 world champion Christian Coleman, banned for 18 months after missing three drugs tests.
The good news for the TV companies and their potential audiences is that there will still be plenty of other great athletes on the start line in Tokyo.
Trayvon Bromell looks a hot favorite to take the 100-meters title back to America for the first time since 2004, while compatriot Noah Lyles is hoping to displace Bolt in the 200.
On the women’s side, Shelly-Ann Fraser Pryce, who won the 100 gold in 2008 and 2012, somehow finds herself favorite to complete a hat-trick at the age of 34 after posting a lifetime best of 10.63 seconds last month, a time beaten only by the late Florence Griffiths Joyner.
American Allyson Felix goes into the 400-meters seeking a 10th Olympic medal — and seventh gold — as she appears in her fifth Games at the age of 35.
Norway’s Karsten Warholm runs every 400-meter hurdles race as if he is trying to break the world record and last month he finally did. In the women’s event, Sydney McLaughlin also set a world record last month, and her duel with compatriot Dalilah Muhammad, whose record she took, could be one of the Tokyo highlights.
It is a similar situation in the women’s 10,000 meters, where Letesenbet Gidey of Ethiopia and Dutchwoman Sifan Hassan both broke the world record within three days of each other in June.
Ethiopia-born Hassan is contemplating a seemingly crazy “Tokyo Triple” of 10,000-meters, 5,000-meters and 1,500-meters, an achievement that would earn her a place at the all-time top table of Olympic athletics, where Bolt would, no doubt graciously, shuffle over to make room.
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