Let the athletes sell the Games

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 September, 2011, 12:00am


There are some who wish the media would just stay on the message and the people in charge of the 2012 London Olympic Games are primary among them. Games organisers are rightfully proud of the fact they are transforming an urban wasteland in the east of the city into a vibrant, world-class sporting locale that will leave a legacy of hope in this downtrodden district as they put a happy, modern face on England for all the world to see.

This is what organisers would like me to write about so I just did. What they would rather I don't write about is that less than two weeks after London celebrated the one-year countdown to the opening of the Games, the city was engulfed in violent riots as looters ran amok while scores of vehicles and buildings were set alight.

This is obviously not what organisers want to be dealing with right now. But how to get back on a positive message? It's seems pretty simple; concentrate on the core of the Games - the athletes. Writing in The Daily Telegraph this week, the head of the organising committee, Sebastian Coe, did just that. In a fit of hyperbole, Coe marvelled at the reception for superstar Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt at the World Athletics Championships in Taegu, South Korea. 'Bolt is like the Muhammad Ali of athletics. He really has an aura, just like the one Ali had. Now his fame goes beyond sports,' Coe wrote. He also claimed he spoke with Bolt and that he has completely embraced being the 'emblematic figure' for the London Games.

The world championships proved to be manna from heaven for the Olympic hosts. There are pockets of track and field fans, most notably in Europe, who follow the meets every season. But beyond that, it's only once every four years during the Olympics that the world gets really excited about athletics so it behooves the sport to create transcendent and memorable performers as well as compelling rivalries; this world championships did just that, leaving fans salivating at the prospect of some of the match-ups at next year's Games.

Bolt is the fastest recorded person in the history of mankind and is a must-see because he is a threat to break a world record every time he steps on the track. He is eminently aware of this and has become an accomplished, albeit occasionally crude, showman. I'm not sure he is on a par with Ali yet but he is the one athletics performer who has instant name recognition so it was somewhat ironic that his much-hyped 100-metre dash in Taegu was over in seconds and not because of his incomparable speed. Bolt jumped out of the starting blocks a fraction of a second early and was disqualified by a controversial rule that the first false start results in automatic disqualification.

You could literally feel the air come out of the stadium as well as in millions of living rooms globally as the greatest sprinter ever left the track in disgust. Bolt came back to win the 200 metres and help set a record for Jamaica in the 4 x 100 relay. But the 100 metres is the marquee event in track and not having him in it totally diminished the race. Coe's recent musings in print on Bolt's greatness was a thinly veiled call for track and field's world governing body to revisit the false-start rule before the London Games is robbed of a truly iconic moment.

As big a shadow as he cast though, Bolt was not the only story on the track and few races have been as compelling as the women's 400 metres and the men's 110-metre hurdles. In the women's 400-metre final, Botswana's Amantle Monsho edged American Allyson Felix by three-tenths of a second in a captivating clash of opposites. Felix is a slight runner with a hypnotic smile and wholesome appeal who runs for the world power in track and field. Monsho is an unmistakably powerful and sinewy performer who was looking to earn Botswana its first medal of any kind at a world championship and for the first time ever Botswana's national anthem played at an international track championship.

For China's Liu Xiang, the 110-metre hurdles was an opportunity to regain some face on Asian soil after the massive disappointment when he was forced to withdraw form the race at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

The weight of the world seemed lifted off his shoulders as he glided towards the front of the pack and was leading coming over the last hurdle before being bumped by the eventual winner and reigning Olympic champion, Cuba's Dayron Robles.

Robles was disqualified, elevating Liu to the silver medal. But the inherent controversy will only serve to heighten the interest over the rematch in London next year. These are but a few of the rivalries that Games organisers will be able to sell. And the greatness of the athletes, much more than any kind of civic restoration, is how you keep the media on a positive message.