Baseball has its A-Rod, golf has its Tiger, tennis its Fed and now, track and field has its Usain Bolt.
In a post-Olympic year, typically a down year in terms of interest, athletics enjoyed one of its most successful runs in recent memory.
Ravaged the last two decades by doping scandals, inept marketing, and a disinterested media, the sport has survived only on the merciful life support of die-hard track fans and dedicated athletes.
Then, in four-year intervals, the Summer Olympics would provide an adrenaline-like injection for a temporary boost.
In Beijing, despite the anti-climactic no-show of sprinter Tyson Gay and hurdler Liu Xiang, Dr. Bolt went to work. With three gold medals and three world records, he got the patient out of bed and jogging up and down the halls.
The recovery continued through the winter indoor season, the collegiate outdoor season, and into the various national qualifying for this year's World Championships in Berlin.
There, the good doctor signed the patient's release by dramatically demolishing his own world records in the 100 and 200 meter sprints.
While Bolt has been the single-most factor in the revived interest in athletics, the brightness of his shining has helped expose many already-established stars. The likes of Ethiopian distance king Kenenisa Bekele, Russian vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva, and Croatian high Jumper Blanka Vlasic have benefited beyond their own fame from Bolt's renown.
The real test of whether track and field is truly on the mend or whether it might relapse into its former ill state will come in the next two years.
Without the booster shot of an Olympics or a World Championship until 2011, the sport must utilize the current momentum—and make a few lifestyle changes.
Indeed some changes are already underway:
- Drug testing in the sport is at an all-time high. Simply testing is not enough, however. Casual attitudes about its use seem to be less prevalent, and Bolt's idol status along with a very public denouncement of PEDs will certainly help.
- A new Diamond League series will be implemented next year. With its monetary incentives and two stops in the USA (Eugene, Oregon and New York), it promises to increase international top-level competition beyond Africa and Eurasia.
- Media attention, especially within the USA, appears to be on the rise—and more positive.
- There is more focus on developing an athletics "culture" within the scholastic sector.
- Sponsors and meet promoters are loosening their pocketbooks as agents are demanding a larger piece of the pie for their clients.
Even Bleacher Report's own Track and Field page experienced a sizable surge during the recent Worlds. The domain was a flurry of articles, comments, and new members (17) for two weeks—including three AOTDs during that period.
By the way, a front page option on the drop-down menu would vastly improve track and field's visibility on Bleacher Report. (Are you reading this, Zander?)
At any rate...the future of track and field finally and ultimately rests on the shoulders of the athletes themselves. They must continue to push the envelope beyond our imaginings, both in performance and character. Dr. Bolt has set the standard.
And while it may seem now that no one can touch his lofty standard, let us remember names like:
image credit: IGN.com