Everything seems to stop at Budapest’s athletics stadium when eight muscle men take their knees on a corner of the tartan track. They put on their shows, flirting with the camera that directed them from the catacombs to the starting blocks. Now the smiles are gone, it’s time to perform, the final of the 100m sprint awaits you.
The center area is empty, except for some photographers and officials, the 36,000-seat stadium is nearly sold out. All these people watched with bated breath how the eight runners went at once, how five guys seemed to rush into the line in a row. A man will win this, and crown himself the fastest human in the world. But?
In any case, it is clear that he will not be one of the most anticipated athletes. The World Championships in Athletics will finally be a duel between world champion American Fred Curley and Olympic champion Marcel Jacobs from Italy. The two bombarded each other on social media with classics at the beginning of this year prattle. Curley began expressing doubts on his podcast that Jacobs was a real hero. Then Jacobs called the American “little dog”.
Soon, the two challenged each other to a face-to-face duel. But that has not happened yet due to the injuries suffered by the Italian. His American rival did not hesitate to make fun of him on the Internet: “You are the best at dribbling.”
Even without a duel, the chatter back and forth took its toll. Battle between extroverts handsome boy From Italy and introverted, somewhat miserable Americans, she was loved by many sports fans. There was even a brief mention of a private contest featuring just Curley and Jacobs and a prize pool of hundreds of thousands of dollars for the winner.
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Thus, sports can use a rivalry like that between Curley and Jacobs, says Gus Hermens, founder of Global Sports Communication, which trains top athletes and organizes athletics events, such as the FBK Games in Hengelo. “In our sport, the focus is a lot on world records. As a result, the athletes hardly take any action, they just want to peak, peak, peak. Whereas they have to compete against each other if we want to create new champions.”
Never a full stadium
Since Usain Bolt’s retirement, the sport has had quite a few champions. This has consequences: last year’s World Cup viewing figures in the US were very disappointing. Eugene Stadium, with 12,000 seats already on the small side, was never full during the tournament. National athletics federations such as the Dutch and Great Britain federations are struggling financially.
100 meters is still the king of athletics. It is the competition that determines who can call himself the fastest person in the world. In the Hungarian capital, the respect for distance was remarkable on Saturday during the preliminary rounds. Nobody knows these athletes, and the world’s best players don’t come in until later, yet there is a respectful silence over the field as they stand poised and await the duet of “set” and “start the pistol.”
However, Curley and Jacobs did not prove to be the natural successors to the Jamaican sporting Bolt. They are hardly known outside of athletics. Partly because they hardly ever take action: In total, they’ve run the 100m six times before the World Cup.
For Jacobs, this was due to injuries. Curley deliberately chose to run some races. Hermens explains such practices: “In athletics, athletes are afraid of losing.” “Look at football, where even the best clubs lose sometimes, or at Mathieu van der Pol, who crashes in mountain biking. But in athletics they think you have to be invincible.” He says the sport should get rid of that.
He’s not the only one. Earlier this year, four-time Olympic champion Michael Johnson called for sweeping changes to athletics to make the sport more popular again. One of his main proposals was to make participation in more competitions more attractive to athletes, so that more competition could be created.
Most runners in the current field are also aware that duels like the one between Curley and Jacobs can add to the sport’s appeal. “Such a rivalry is part of it, and it makes athletics more exciting for the fans,” said Kenya’s Ferdinand Umaniyala, who finished seventh in the final. Canadian sprinter Braddon Rodney, a two-time medalist at the Games, compares the sport to other sports. “Look at boxing, or UFC cage fights, and even soccer with Messi vs. Ronaldo. Any sport that brings in a lot of money has good fights.”
Last week, there was good news for the sport: Netflix Next year, she announced the launch of a documentary series about the fastest athletes in the world, as she had previously done with sports such as Formula 1, golf, tennis and cycling. “This will really help us,” says 22-year-old Sean Maswangani, South Africa, an emerging talent with a personal best of 9.91. “The athletics world needs to do a better job from a marketing standpoint, because I feel like our sport is dying. We hope we can enter new markets with this series and make a name for ourselves beyond athletics.”
More than those nine seconds.
Olympic champion Jacobs is also happy about that. “That way people can see not only the nine seconds we’re running, but everything we’re doing to achieve that nine seconds.”
But this Sunday he did not reach the nine according to himself. In the semi-finals, the Italian hung at 10.05, a performance that was not good enough for the final. And when Curley, who has golden sunglasses on his nose, does not run for less than ten seconds, it becomes clear that the world will be denied a direct duel.
With seven new names in the final, there were none from last year’s medalists. He’s going to write a new chapter in the hundred meters, that’s obvious. American Noah Lyles, who was the fastest in qualifying for the final with a score of 9.87, had already announced this on Saturday. “Competition is all well and good, but the party is ruined when someone else comes along and wins. And I’m not here to lose.”
Big talk, the American justifies it with his legs on Sunday evening. He separates himself from the rest in the second part of the race and crosses the line clear first. He celebrates his world title with an American flag over his shoulders.
It is Lyles’ fourth world title, after claiming a world title in the 4x100m relay with the United States and two individual gold medals in the 200m. At that distance, he announced that he wanted to break Bolt’s world record (19.19). A 200-meter final is scheduled for Friday. Perhaps then the world will witness the birth of a new star in athletics.
A version of this article also appeared in the August 21, 2023 newspaper.
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