Innovation necessary to keep fading athletics alive

Monday February 20 2017

Bolt All Stars team captain Usain Bolt of Jamaica entertains the crowd during the Nitro Athletics meet in Melbourne on February 11, 2017. PHOTO | THEO KARANIKOS |

Bolt All Stars team captain Usain Bolt of Jamaica entertains the crowd during the Nitro Athletics meet in Melbourne on February 11, 2017. PHOTO | THEO KARANIKOS |  AFP

By ELIAS MAKORI
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Athletics is at the crossroads. In August, one of the world’s most exciting and talented athletes of all time, one Usain St Leo Bolt, will be calling time on his brilliant international career after competing for the last time at the IAAF World Championships in London.

Bolt bowing out of the international stage will leave the sport the more poorer as the Jamaican legend has almost single-handedly kept global interest in athletics alive in the midst of fierce competition from more popular global sports like football, basketball and rugby.

Earlier this month, the Jamaican sprints legend’s “Bolt All-Stars” team won the inaugural Nitro Athletics series, a new team event concept that blends flawless, high adrenaline competition with modern entertainment and television in an attempt to breathe more life, vigour, innovation and youthful exuberance into track and field.

Created by Athletics Australia, the three-leg, six-team Nitro Athletics saw “Bolt All-Stars” face off with teams from England, New Zealand, China, Australia and Japan.

Kenya’s middle distance runners Selah Jepleting Busienei and Elijah Kipchirchir Kiptoo were in Bolt’s 12-strong team that also featured Olympic medallists Michael Frater, Asafa Powell and Dawn Harper-Nelson.

With live entertainment key on its menu, Nitro Athletics drew overflowing crowds of close to 9,000 each time in the modest, 8,000-seater Lakeside Stadium in Melbourne.

Most importantly, the events drew young fans who were lured through the turnstiles by the fine cocktail of back-to-back, star-studded athletics action running alongside popular music, with interesting events such as 600 metres and 150 metres races, mixed 4x100 metres relays, mixed 2x300 metres relays, hurdles relays, inter alia, served up.

Unfortunately, unlike their Australian counterparts, Kenyan athletics organisers don’t seem to have changed tack, seemingly oblivious of the fact that track and field is in serious danger of losing its lustre.

Unlike Athletics Australia, they have done zilch to bring innovation into athletics and attract the younger generation, which is worrying as Nairobi, ironically, prepares to host the IAAF World Under-18 Championships in July.

Last Saturday’s National Cross Country Championships at Nairobi’s Uhuru Gardens attracted the world’s best distance runners battling to catch the selector’s eye ahead of next month’s IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Kampala.

But apart from drawing the creme de la creme of global distance running, the Uhuru Gardens meet was annoyingly low on entertainment value, with the traditional long, boring speeches taking the sting off the first-class running.

It’s sad that our athletics organisers continue to run meet programmes like inter-dormitory competitions in high school where fans are denied value addition, with the head teacher often the self-appointed master of ceremonies.

Instead of Athletics Kenya’s top brass imposing speeches on a disinterested audience, I’d have expected to see Kenya’s chart toppers Sauti Sol, Ken Wa Maria or Olkeri Success belting out popular tunes, like Kuliko Jana, Fundamentals or Kiyogen Maat, just to spice up the championship.

Fans would have loved to hear the DJ play Wasi wasi by the late Junior Kotestes, rather than Athletics Kenya’s vice president caressing the sound of his own voice on the public address system.

Live performances, mixed with bouncing castles and autograph signing sessions, will help make athletics more attractive to the ‘digital generation’ and help grow interest in the sport.

Also, this will give an additional return on investment to meet sponsors who will now have access to younger, potential customers.

After all, athletics is show business.