Sport is life’s most concentrated metaphor, showcasing the arc of human emotions in real time before an attentive audience in a well-lit arena. Thus, do we see bitter defeat hard breathing alongside utter euphoria as both experience the dramatic after effects of a consequential action. Maybe that one word — consequential — is what most distinguishes the recent European Championships and U.S. Olympic Trials from the average IAAF Diamond League athletics meeting, whose circuit picked up again today in Monaco.
People understand championships and trials. Not just athletics fans, but regular sports fans, too. NBC’s TV ratings for their Trials’ coverage underscores that point. What people get is that the competition is staged for something of consequence, something of perceived value. In the case of the Euro Champs, it was an international title, and in Eugene it was the attainment of an Olympic berth. Those titles and berths resonated with the audience, and lifted the competitions onto a higher plane.
Today in Monaco at the Herculis Meet there were many intriguing competitions for athletics fans, perhaps the men’s 1500 and women’s (kinda, sorta) 800 most especially. But as Track & Field News stat man extraordinaire Ken Nakamura tweeted: “Lots of empty seats in Monaco. @BislettGames was not full either. Is track losing fans because of doping and Diack?”
Possibly. Those corrupting elements certainly don’t help. But security was also very tight in Monaco following last night’s terrorist tragedy in Nice, France. That said, besides fast times, long and high high jumps, what about the Herculis/Monaco Meet will resonate outside the industry other than maybe Caster Semenya‘s Ripley’s Believe It or Not women’s 800?
From my viewing, there was no sense you were watching a professional sporting event where there were consequences to winning and losing. A grand exhibition? Absolutely. But what was at stake to engage emotions? Where were the metaphors for hope and sorrow — except for the sorrow of those poor women running behind Semenya’s rocking-chair 1:55?
Even when Olympic Trials finals dawdled in their early laps, the consequential nature of the outcome ratcheted up the tension all the same. After all, once an Olympian, always an Olympian. And except for the top four ranked golfers in the world, making an Olympic team has perceived value to the public. So if we must speak in such terms, why hasn’t competition and its reward become the focus of the sport at the professional level, rather than paced time challenges that offer no perceived payoff?
Who delivered the most blows at UFC 200? Does it matter? They keep track of such things, of course, but stats can be deceiving, are deceiving, and will be again. But what’s not deceptive is the fact that the UFC was just sold last week for $4 billion 15 years after being bought for just $2 million. Somebody knows how to market a sport.
Not to say you don’t want to occasionally stage a world record attempt. Today’s men’s 1500 had a record attempt quality to it, though it faded late. But that must be only an occasional promotion, not an every-race format, because then it loses its consequence.
If anything that’s the message coming out of the Olympic Trials every four years, and the challenge athletics faces in this era of lost relevance and rising cynicism. How do you make the sport matter beyond Usain Bolt? How do you connect to an audience beyond the hard core?
Because after all we might expect to see in Rio — drug stories, national team banishments, viruses, crime, inter-sex races, potential terror, heavy media focus on swimming and gymnastics — the IAAF suits in their leather armchairs better figure it out fast or their own sport’s sorrows might indeed grow to be quite consequential, and not just metaphoric any longer.