Athletics malaise leads to apathy

Image of Matthew Engel

A night of tropical heat in the beautiful stadium currently at the centre of the known universe. Here was day five of the athletics, the beating heart of the Olympic Games.

And, as the climax of the day’s entertainment, here was perhaps the resonant and iconic of all track races, the 1,500m, the “metric mile”: the event of Paavo Nurmi, Kip Keino and Sebastian Coe.

It was quite a race too – with the Kenyan Asbel Kiprop just failing in a desperate late bid to overhaul Rashid Ramzi. There were golds for the traditional athletic powers, Russia and the US, plus the ubiquitous British, who have not pushed their weight around so much in China since the days when they reputedly put up a “No Dogs or Chinese” sign on the Bund in Shanghai.

There was also a triumphant Estonian discus thrower, Gerd Kanter, who celebrated his victory with a burst down the home straight ending with a series of Usain Bolt gestures. Unfortunately, the Estonian flag is not over-familiar, and hardly anyone had been watching the discus: most people probably thought he was a trespasser who was lucky not to be overwhelmed by the People’s Liberation Army.

A hell of a night to be in the Bird’s Nest, then? Well, the Chinese didn’t think so. After the packed houses over the weekend, empty-seat syndrome has returned to the Olympics, and much of the top tier was unpopulated.

With the exit of the hurdler Liu Xiang, the Chinese have little to enthuse about in the stadium. They have just one athletics bronze so far, a stark contrast to their performance almost everywhere else. Four hours of track and field can be wearisome if you don’t care who wins. Frankly, the atmosphere was flat.

Usain Bolt aside, athletics is desperately short of the kind of inspirational figures who can transcend mere nationalism, as the African distance runners did when they first emerged from the hills in the 1960s.

Ramzi hardly fits the bill. He is one of the growing breed of runners who are financed by the rather nasty little transfer system from poor countries to rich. Born in Morocco, he runs for Bahrain, having been recruited for the Bahraini armed forces as a teenager. However, he may not be available for their next national emergency, since (according to Running Times) he is allowed “a certain amount of leeway” in his duties: ie he trains eight months a year.

And Christine Ohuruogu, the British winner of the 400m, has had a chequered history with the drug testers: so her win was not greeted by unanimous approval even by the Brits. She did get three Union Jacks waved for her in the stands, which at these games is a lot. One definite advantage of a London (or almost anywhere else) Olympics against Beijing is that there will be a more cosmopolitan crowd to ensure that even Estonian discus throwers get noticed.

But then athletics is in such a poor state that Bolt himself cannot command the airwaves everywhere. The Olympics’ chief paymaster, the US television network NBC, did not show the 100m live.

It is known that Americans have a short attention span, and 9.69sec is obviously now way too much for them. Bolt is doing his bit to make the race quicker and less tedious. Couldn’t NBC at least show the start and finish, and show some ads during the longueurs in the middle?

These Olympics were supposed to be about cementing China’s place in the world. Meanwhile, America appears to have resigned from it.

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