Usain Bolt, Yohan Blake and Justin Gatlin must stop avoiding each other at Diamond League meetings in 2015
Telegraph athletics writer Ben Bloom outlines his five-point manifesto for the sport in 2015 and picks his star to watch
My priorities for 2015
1. Get the crowds in – Multiple sold out sessions at the Commonwealth Games at Hampden Park proved that the British public had not lost its appetite for top-class athletics after London 2012. Away from Britain the biggest recent events, the 2013 World Championships in Moscow and 2014 European Championships in Zurich, had extremely sparse crowds at times, while support at the Continental Cup in Marrakech was an embarrassment. Lower ticket prices, give free passes to schools and athletics clubs and generally do more to get the crowds in.
2. Big-name clashes on a regular basis – The creation of the Diamond League has done much to increase the profile of athletics with leading competitors competing regularly. Yet when it comes to such blue-riband events as the men’s 100m and 200m all too often the biggest names – Usain Bolt, Yohan Blake, Justin Gatlin etc – avoid each other, selecting races without their main rivals. The men’s high jump was arguably the event of 2014 because the world’s best were pushing each other to new heights on a regular basis. The sprint stars should take a leaf out of their book.
3. More publicity for field events – Credit to the BBC for following the Diamond League circuit around the world, but not a meeting goes by without anger on social media at the lack of coverage for field events. Pole vault world record holder Renaud Lavillenie and four-time shot put world champion Valerie Adams were crowned World Athletes of the Year in 2014 but how many people outside the sport have heard of them? The men’s high jump has never been so competitive. Give them the exposure they deserve.
4. Increase the anti-doping budget – While Britain has one of the most stringent anti-doping policies in the world, recent revelations from Russia, Kenya, Jamaica and Turkey show the huge disparity that exists between countries. Boost the money available to anti-doping authorities, ensure every nation follows the same procedures as far as possible and increase the punishments for those who are caught. There is not a single person in the world who does not want this to happen.
5. Give Cooly the Cow a permanent gig – I am not usually a sucker for mascots, in fact I actively dislike almost all of them, but Cooly the Cow was one of the highlights of the 2014 European Championships. With his break dancing, comedy falls and amusing antics he had the crowd eating out of his hooves. There is a (somewhat) serious point here: if Cooly can help more young people and families enjoy days out at the athletics then give him the Diamond League job full time.
My key date for 2015
Aug 23 – The Bird’s Nest Stadium in Beijing, the start line for the World Championship men’s 100m final and appears to be a simple case of good versus bad.
On one side is the greatest athlete in the history of the athletics. A man who marked himself indelibly on the sporting conscience in the very same stadium seven years previously with a pre-victory celebration the like of which the world had never seen. A man who has since gone on to win six Olympic and eight world titles, but more significantly has brought the sport a legion of new fans along the way.
On the other side is the dark face of athletics. A man who has twice tested positive for drugs during his career and refuses to show any contrition for his offences. A man who the entire sport wishes would quietly slip away but he keeps coming back for more.
Usain Bolt and Justin Gatlin have raced each other many times before. At the London Olympics in 2012 it was the Jamaican who triumphed and the result was the same a year later at the World Championships in Moscow.
Much has changed since and there is more than an inkling that the tide has turned. While Bolt spent last year competing in joke events on Copacabana beach, Gatlin reached greater heights than ever before. In Brussels in September he set a new 100m personal best of 9.77sec to follow up his 200m personal best a few months earlier. At the age of 32 he ran six of the seven fastest 100m times of the year. The American is undeniably the world No 1.
So what happens when all eyes are on Beijing in August? Does Bolt reclaim the position that everyone believes is his and the sport breathes a huge sigh of relief? Or does Gatlin become the most unpopular 100m world champion of all time? The stage is set.
Star to watch in 2015
Dina Asher-Smith – Whisper it, or shout it from the rooftops if you like, but British sprinting is in better shape than it has been for many years. The Jamaicans and Americans will not be quaking in their boots quite yet, but they will certainly have noticed what is happening on our shores.
James Dasaolu, Adam Gemili and Chijindu Ujah are flying the baton for the men, while the talent among the women’s ranks goes even deeper. Jodie Williams, Bianca Williams and Ashleigh Nelson all won major individual medals in 2014 and the women’s 4x100m relay quartet broke the national record twice in 11 days. Yet it is a 19-year-old King’s College, London, history undergraduate who perhaps has the brightest future.
The youngest among her British athletics peers, Dina Asher-Smith was the fastest 100m runner in the country last year with her time of 11.14sec. In July she finished a whopping 0.16sec ahead of her nearest rival to win the world junior 100m title and then followed it up at the European Championships with what she described as “the best day of my life”.
It was just after 10am that she received the news, via her mother, that she had achieved the necessary A-Level grades to study at King’s College – at least three As although she has not revealed exactly what. A few hours later she broke the British junior 200m record and thrust herself into the world’s top 20 for the year in the process. Only injury in the final prevented her from a tilt at a European medal.
It is her level-headedness, as well as her obvious supreme speed, that marks her out. Speaking about juggling a full-time university degree with training to be a world-class sprinter, she says: “Having two things focuses you because it puts everything into perspective. Athletics is great but we are entertainers and the industry is fleeting.” Asher-Smith has the brains and talent to go far.