Hubert Lawrence | Thanks Eliud, thanks Kevin
Scarcely a week after the IAAF launched some experiments at the Continental Cup in Ostrava, Kenya's Eliud Kipchoge and Kevin Mayer of France showed the world what the sport of athletics really needs. Together, they put a sting in the tail of the track and field season with stunning world records.
Kipchoge uncorked a master-ful run of 2:01:39 in the Berlin Marathon. Later on, the same day, Mayer became the first decathlete to exceed 9100 points with a score of 9126 in Talence, France.
Kipchoge, the 2016 Olympic champion, has people whispering again about the 2-hour barrier after a run that also established the fastest time ever for 30 kilometres. He is 33, but at 27, Mayer may become one of the faces of the sport since he is already the 2017 World champion.
With the incomparable Usain Bolt and distance king Mo Farah of Great Britain gone, the public needs new stars to admire. Otherwise, meet organisers might try experiments even less satisfying than those tried in Ostrava.
At the Continental Cup, the horizontal field events used a heat semis-final format. The heats pitted teammate against teammate, which hurts units with two strong performers. Compare that to the track and vertical field events, and the imbalance appears. Teams strong there can, and did, score maximum points.
For example, Jamaica's Danielle Williams and her Americas teammate Keni Harrison went one-two in the 100 metres hurdles.
In the women's discus, Croatia's World and Olympic discus champion, Sandra Perkovic, throwing for Europe, lost to Yaime Perez of Cuba and the Americas team, though they had distances of 68.44 and 65.30 metres, respectively. A foul in the final betrayed the Croatian.
The Cup borrowed from cycling and superimposed the 'devil take the hindmost' system on races beyond 1,500 metres. Jamaica's Commonwealth champion Aisha Praught-Leer wasn't too far off the pace that led to a five-second reduction of her own national record in the steeplechase. She paid the price for being fifth and last with a lap to go.
Each race at the Continental Cup having just eight runners was a severe way to induce excitement. With a bigger field, it might just have worked. In any case, the value track and field placed on finishing and setting personal bests is lost with this format.
Thankfully, Kipchoge and Mayer gave all of track and field something to smile about on Sunday. Their records delighted hardcore fans and casual observers in equal measure. Perhaps the way forward will lead to more speciality meets like the Decastar Multis, where Mayer set his record; the World Relays; and jumps- and throws-only meets.
In such settings, fans can get close to their new heroes. Kipchoge; Mayer; Bahamian all-sprint queen Shaunae Miller-Uibo; teenage European champion prodigies Armand 'Mondo' Duplantis, the Swedish pole vault boy wonder, and Norwegian 1500/5000 doubler Jakob Ingebrigtsen; charming South African long jumper Luvo Manyonga; and throwers like Sandra Perkovic and Fedrick Dacres could delight fans the way Bolt and Farah did.
All of them can become wonderful ambassadors for a sport that needs all the friends it can get.
The IAAF is right to search for ways to make the sport more viable in a world where it competes for support with all forms of entertain-ment and team competition is certainly a compelling attraction. However, stronger promotion, speciality meets, and memorable performances are more likely to bring new fans into stadiums around the world.
- Hubert Lawrence has made notes at track side since 1980.