The final of the men’s 10,000 metres at the World Athletics Championships in London last night (Friday) was a reminder of just how jaw-droppingly good top-class track and field can be. Hopefully tonight can provide similar theatre with Usain Bolt in the 100m, because when these championships end on Sunday week the sport has no choice but to look forward.
This week appears to be about saying goodbye. It’s farewell to Sir Mo Farah as a track athlete, it’s the last we’ll see of Bolt in spikes and Brendan Foster will hang up his microphone for the BBC, which may not seem important but he’s championed his sport for a very long time.
On the women’s side there are genuine superstars, we just haven’t heard of them. Allyson Felix has been a great athlete for longer than Bolt has been around but somehow women’s athletics only creates a minor blip on the sporting radar. Caster Semenya creates headlines, but only because the debate over her gender is a bigger story than her achievements as a runner. The most famous female faces in UK athletics, Jessica Ennis-Hill and Paula Radcliffe, are both retired and working in the media.
We are also told that this is likely to be the last world championship held in the traditional format, that the sport has to adapt and therefore the week-long timetable will soon be a thing of the past. It’s a real shame, because a global athletics championships, either world or Olympic, is where some of the most memorable sport ever has been played out.
When the IAAF launched their first world championship in 1983 the event was a success from the start. This was the high-water mark for the sport. All the top meetings – Zurich, Oslo, Brussels – were on the BBC and athletes were household names, wherever they were from. The medal winners from Helsinki 34 years ago are still familiar, even if some of their performances, particularly by the women, can be treated with more than a little suspicion.
Four years was the right amount of time to wait for the second edition. Rome in 1987 was a true global championships unlike the Los Angeles Olympics of 1984, which were ruined by a Soviet-led boycott. People might look back at this time with sadness, when many records, particularly by women, were put out of reach for today’s athletes, but the sport had a mega profile.
The profile of athletics now is carried on the shoulders of two men, and both are bowing out. London is a great place for a curtain call, the city is among the grandest stages in sport and the British are the greatest watchers of sport on Earth. In two year’s time the world championships are in Qatar, with no Bolt, no Farah and possibly no hope.
Athletics is in urgent need of a quick fix because London 2017 might not just be when the sport says goodbye to two of its greatest stars, it might be when we say goodbye to the sport.