We Need To Stop Wasting Usain Bolt

It’s time for a Triple Crown of Speed. posted on

The man. The myth. The guy whose prime we’re wasting. David Gray / Reuters

Usain Bolt is the greatest sprinter the world has ever seen. Period. Full stop. End of discussion. Other things people say when they are trying to emphasize a point. He routinely beats the best runners on the planet without seeming to empty his tank. He’s such an athletic freak of nature that a simple Google search brings up speculation that he could play in the NFL, suit up for Manhcester United, and win the long jump (an event in which he doesn’t currently compete) at the Rio Olympics in 2016 (Bolt himself has expressed interest in this one). Hell, when you begin searching “Can Usain Bolt Outrun…” this is what you see.

(By the way, people trying to answer these questions always assume he’d be racing an average animal. Shouldn’t he be racing the fastest bear/dog/lion? The Usain Bolt of dogs? To be the best, you have to beat the best!)

The motive behind these questions is clear: People want more Usain Bolt. They want to see Usain Bolt so much they would watch him race a dog. (Wouldn’t you?) We want to see Bolt do what he was born to do — run really fucking fast in one of the most thrilling events in sports. We would pay to see it, in the sense that we would tolerate watching a bunch of ads leading up to a ten-second race in which he was competing. Why do we have to wait another four years to do this?

Usain Bolt doesn’t technically take four-year breaks, of course. Olympic sprinters (and other track and field athletes) compete in what is called the Diamond League (formerly known as the Golden League before the United States, China, and Qatar began hosting meets alongside European contries). On September 7th, a month after reaffirming his greatness in London, Bolt ran in the Diamond Race (the league’s finale) in Brussels. The title came down to Bolt, his countryman Nesta Carter, and American Ryan Bailey. Whichever of them took the final would take the title. It was as dramatic a set-up a race could hope for, and featured Bolt at the height of his popularity, and yet it was only broadcast on the Universal Sports Network. A station that you most likely do not have, and if you do, is buried deep on your dial. Though to USN’s credit it was broadcast live. Unfortunately, that meant you’d have to be watching TV at 2:45 p.m. ET on a Friday to see Bolt win.

Usain Bolt with a trophy that no one cares about. Laurent Dubrule / Reuters

Clearly a change is needed. Something about the current setup of track and field is keeping Usain Bolt and his fans in the United States apart. This is most likely because non-Olympic track and field is historically more popular in Europe, which is why so many of the meets are are held there (9 of the 14 Diamond League meets), but there’s clearly an appetite for more Bolt stateside. So I propose the Triple Crown of Speed.

The TCS wouldn’t replace the Diamond League, but supplement it. Think of it like the majors in golf or the grand slams in tennis. If you want to watch long jump or discus or even the 200m between the Olympics and the World Championships, the Diamond League will remain your best bet. The TCS would be all about the 100m. It’d be about keeping the question “Who are the fastest man and woman alive?” in people’s heads every year instead of every four. It’d be about not wasting the primes of athletes like Usain Bolt.

Three times a year the greatest sprinters in the world would come together to race for big money and bigger accolades. NBC would build an hour or two of programming around both the men’s and women’s races, in the way they do for the horse-racing Triple Crown, and a sponsor would put up big prize money. To maintain track and field’s international spirit we’d hold one race in North America, one in Europe, and one in Asia, but make sure that the races happen either in the afternoon or primetime in the U.S. Who wouldn’t want this? We live in a world where average sports fans — hell, average people — care about golf and tennis four times a year, horse racing three times a year, and motorsports twice a year. Are you telling me these same people wouldn’t watch, bet with their friends, and generally care about the most exciting 10 seconds in sports three times a year? If Usain Bolt races on network TV against a legitimate slate of competitors, and the network acts like it’s a big deal, it will be a big deal. People will watch.

Who says no to this set-up? NBC is in because, as the home of the Olympics, it’s in their best interest to promote these athletes. The more sprinters who are household names, the better for NBC. And there are plenty of Sundays (particularly in the summer) where NBC doesn’t have any notable sports programming. We just filled three of them. Sponsors shouldn’t be hard to find; there aren’t many opportunities to put your company at the forefront of a major sporting event. If big corporations love anything it’s…finding ways to get out of paying taxes. But if big corporations love two things it’s finding ways to get out of paying taxes and spending money, even when they don’t have it (CitiField), to associate their name with the hard work and talent of athletes. And the sprinters will say yes, because this will be an opportunity to increase their exposure during a time that is typically fallow for them. Plus with a big sponsor providing prize/appearance money, they will be financially incentivized to show up. This isn’t even a tough sell.

Usain Bolt’s most notable post-Olympics moment.

Practical considerations aside, we almost owe it to an athlete of Bolt’s ability and charisma to give him a bigger stage. Since the Olympics his most prominent moment was a nonsensical appearance in Saturday Night Live’s skit about the vice presidential debate. Given the current state of non-Olympic track and field, I’m worried that chastising Taran Killam’s Paul Ryan might remain his most notable moment until the next Jamaican Olympic trials, and if ever there was a sign that we are wasting Usain Bolt’s best years it’s that I just wrote a whole paragraph about his involvement with a comedy sketch about the election season’s fourth-most important debate in a country that he’s not even from.

But the need for the Triple Crown of Speed isn’t just about Bolt. Yes, he is a once in a generation athlete, but the 100-meter dash has a way of consistently delivering once-in-a-generation athletes. There’s something about the simplicity of it. “I’ll race you from here to there. On your mark. Get set…” It’s the most basic, primal competition you can dream up. It’s athleticism distilled. It’s evolution in action. We should get to appreciate that more often than we do.

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