It’s become the story of the day, Olympic sprint king Usain Bolt accepting Olympic distance star Mo Farah’s challenge to meet up over 600 meters in a run-off for bragging rights and charity.
Well, big ups to Mo and Usain, because this is exactly what the sport has been needing for quite some time, something new and compelling, something fun and different. Track & Field (Athletics) has been locked into its sealed laboratory of specific distances and technical events for so long that there are very few “What If” proposition bets like Bolt vs. Farah that ever come up to intrigue an outside audience.
In fact, shouldn’t there be an exhibition race of some sort at every Diamond League meet, something outside the ordinary that pits a world-class This against a world-class That at some agreed upon distance in between? There ought to be men and women on the track at the same time in some version of a Pursuit Challenge like in cycling, something, anything.
So when Mo says to Usain, ‘Are you up for that? Come on, you’ve got to do it. Let’s get it on,’ the master showman Bolt didn’t take long to pick up Mo’s gauntlet. Yes, it will be for charity, but the duel has instantly resonated with sports fans.
Last year there was talk of match race pitting Bolt versus 800 meter world record holder David Rudisha over 400 meters or so, but that never got any traction. But with Farah and Bolt both being repped by Ricky Sims, and both having fun-loving public personalities to go with their obvious racing acumen, this showdown has been quickly embraced.
Remember when Michael Johnson and Donovan Bailey staged their 150-meter match race in Toronto in 1997 after each had won his respective sprint golds in Atlanta, Bailey in the 100 and Johnson in the 200 and 400? It was like an Evel Knievel event with big-time TV and major public interest. Of course, it kind of fell apart when Johnson pulled up lame in the middle of the race.
If they’d done it right, they’d have staged a three-race series with a 100 meters run in Bailey’s home town of Toronto, a 200 in Johnson’s home in Dallas, then what we assume would have been a rubber race at 150 meters in Las Vegas to decide the issue with the sports bookies laying odds on the outcome.
With athletics tied to shoe contracts and year-end rankings, the sport has excised exciting rivalries and a competitive focus for a series of never-ending paced time trials. What has long been missing is showmanship at the meet director level. Ian Stewart brought a measure of it to English meets in recent years, and Global Athletic’s Mark Wetmore stages well at the Boston Indoor Games. But now that Bolt and Mo have grabbed an audience with their exploits and personalities, where are the Barnums and Baileys of this world who know how to take that talent and promote racing for public consumption?
There isn’t anything wrong with this sport that a little Charlie O. Finley couldn’t cure. Maybe the Mo vs. Bolt Duel will release the inner Bill Veecks of the world. The sport could use it.