Of course, the overt violence of boxing and mano-a-mano nature of the game separates it from the more subtle and less obvious violence of running where the pain and savagery is meted out using pace as the hammer (and head-butting and sneak punches aren’t an issue). Another difference is that no runner on the planet – no, make that ALL runners together on the planet – don’t earn what Mayweather pulled down for the 11:59 of fighting last night, $25 million, a sum likely to rise when pay-per-view receipts are counted. For reference, the Samsung Diamond League total payout for the 2011 track and field season is $8 million spread over 32 event champions. Dartmouth grad Ben True earned the princely sum of $5000 for his USA 5 KM Championship.
While boxing fans still await the one mega-fight we’d all pay to see, Mayweather versus Manny Pacquiao of the Philippines, foot-racing fans still long for the match ups that the Samsung Diamond League was supposed to deliver but hasn’t. In Brussels that would have been World 100 meter Champion Yohan Blake versus World 200 meter Champion (and training partner) Usain Bolt. Instead each man opted for the other man’s championship distance, whetting the fans appetite even more for a showdown that won’t be happening.
The question is, is there any proposition in track which might lure fans into a pay-per-view mood? And if so, how to build an undercard to sate a paying crowd knowing that the Main Event will only consist of a few seconds of warfare? Even if it only took Floyd Mayweather less than 12 minutes to dispose of Victor Ortiz, the possibility of 36:00 of action- 12 rounds – remained intact until the final blows were landed in round 4.
Notwithstanding, young Mr. Blake is exactly what the lordly Mr. Bolt needs as the 2011 season wraps and the Olympic year beckons, a real eye-opener – whether in the competitive sense, or Phil Hersh sense, i. e. Did Yohan Blake just make it seem dopey to watch track …
Yes, the kid was a real sports car in Daegu at the World Championships 100 meters, but only after Bolt false-started to the sidelines, leaving the field ripe for Blake’s golden harvest. Following Daegu, the 21 year-old added a pair of 9.82s in Europe and now this, 19.26, second-best all-time for the deuce after a balky start!! And you wonder why Mr. Hersh wonders?
But Brussels now looks more and more like Bolt saw what was coming, and opted to go to the non-Diamond League 100, ceding the furlong to his smaller training partner, who blew Walter Dix’s 19.53 into an adjoining language. Now even Bolt’s golden 19.40 200 in Daegu and Friday’s stumbling (left toe scraped out of the blocks) 9.76 world-leading 100 in Brussels with its rushed drive phase seemed lazy. Well, Blake just woke him up.
Still, one of the few times there’s actual matchup people want to see, and the powers that be can’t deliver. As always, everyone is protecting turf. That’s how you know the pitch is too small. You want your athletes expansive, hungry for competition. But we narrow their choices and inhibit the risk. It’s a self-limiting methodology which doesn’t showcase the best against the best, which is what you really have to sell. When the best match up on paper doesn’t make it the track or roads, you aren’t just using that pistol to start your race, you’re shooting yourself in the foot at the same time.
That’s why I have always felt it isn’t how much you pay people to win that counts, it’s how much you pay them to risk losing. That said, forget Bolt v. Blake. What I want to see is Bolt and David Rudisha over 400 meters. Bolt is the world champion and world-record holder at 200 meters. Rudisha is undisputed king of the 800 meters, world champion and record holder, as well.
The question we want answered is: where is that line separating pure speed from speed endurance? It’s somewhere beyond 200 and less than 800. A Bolt v. Rudisha battle might well settle the issue for our current times. And since neither man would be racing in what is his Diamond League event, no one’s ranking would be on the line, just his rep.
Bailey Over MJ
Perhaps the last time the sport of track and field made a dent in the national consciousness in pure competitive terms was June 9, 1997 when the USA’s Michael Johnson and Canada’s Donovan Bailey hooked up in a 150-meter “World’s Fastest Man” showdown in the Toronto SkyDome when Bailey was the world number one 100 meter man, and Johnson reigned supreme in the 200-400. Problem was Johnson pulled up down the stretch when it became obvious he wasn’t going to win, thereby creating a huge anti-climax to what had been a very successful promotion.
What would have been an even better promotion should have been a three-race series with a 100 run in Toronto (Bailey’s distance and home country) followed by a 200 in Dallas (Johnson’s game and town), and a climatic 150 in Las Vegas under the lights on the strip with betting and live TV.
If we want to engage the public, we better find a way to put the right athletes in the right events in front of an anxious public ready to cough up their hard-earned wages to see the fight. Right now I’m guessing it’s Rudisha and Bolt who would create the biggest buzz. What other match-up do you think would light up an audience?