Berlin success should not be Bolt from blue


ATHLETICS: Berlin restored a lot of people’s faith and interest in the sport and the danger is it could all go to waste.

THE DANGER in getting hooked and then consumed by an athletics World Championships is the sudden and hideous withdrawal. You don’t go 21 hours a day for nine days straight without generating industrial amounts of adrenaline, and that becomes a daily fix as addictive and as lethal as crack cocaine. Try coming off that cold turkey.

They were what every sportswriter lives for; high drama and one extraordinary sight after another. It was like being caught in crazy surf and realising the only way to survive was by maximising the ride. No wonder so many of us left Berlin last weekend thinking we might never see the likes of it again. We definitely won’t see so much exciting copy.

Let’s be honest about it. Ray Charles did his best work during the years he was addicted to heroin. Keith Richards admitted he was a total junkie when recording Exile on Main Street – and that album still sounds as loud and as dirty today as it did in 1972. If you want to be inspired beyond the ordinary then sometimes you need a little helping hand, and these past few days post-Berlin have left me feeling like an ex-addict already desperate for a fresh hit.

Initially the only way I could deal with the withdrawal symptoms was to stay in bed, wriggling around in a hot sweat. I refused to answer the doorbell and ignored phone calls. Then about 4pm on Tuesday the phone rang three times in quick succession. Must be something urgent. It was Conor Mac, an old college friend I hadn’t heard from in two years and had last seen falling off his bike somewhere along the Wicklow Gap.

“Where are you?” he asked. “You know Lance Armstrong is in town?” Suddenly the adrenaline was trickling again, and with that the thought maybe I could face the real world after all. In any case, it’s not every day you get to ride with a seven-time winner of the Tour de France. We agreed to meet at the main gates to the Phoenix Park at 5.15pm. Lance was going to be there at 5.30pm. A lot of other people had the same idea. It was madness. We were five laps into the circuit around the park before I even got to see him, but it was definitely worth the effort – confirmation that Lance Armstrong is a sporting phenomenon that comes along only once in a lifetime.

This is the same man the majority of cycling experts claim must have taken performance-enhancing drugs to do what he did, although judging by the reception he got on Tuesday, the majority of cycling fans couldn’t care less even if he did. To them, Armstrong is simply an icon of the sport, and whether it’s more fascination than worship the popularity of the man is simply astonishing. Every sport needs a hero. Cycling is lucky to have a Lance Armstrong – the same way athletics is now lucky to have a Usain Bolt. I couldn’t stop thinking about that on the cycle home from the Phoenix Park and couldn’t stop thinking about the shameful wait before Bolt gets his next chance to become the headline act in world sport. By my calculations, it will be the London Olympics, which in case you don’t know already, aren’t until 2012.

It’s no secret athletics has been struggling to maintain an audience, television or otherwise. What the World Championships in Berlin proved is if athletics is packaged right and gets the performances and a performer like Usain Bolt then there are very few people who won’t tune in. And I don’t think there’s ever been a more recognisable star in track and field than the big Jamaican, or at least not one you could find playing DJ at 4am in a Berlin nightclub. Athletics has a great product but at the same time has become its own worst enemy by limiting or at times diminishing the value of its most prized possession, which the World Championships clearly are.

Why not have a World Championships every year? If the IAAF, the governing body of the sport, reduced the World Championships from nine days to seven, hosted them in slighter smaller stadiums, and introduced stricter qualifying standards, there’s no reason why they couldn’t become an annual showcase for the sport and maintain their importance.

Of course that’s not going to happen, not when the IAAF appear to be so ignorant of what is important for the development of the sport. Just consider their decision to award the 2011 championships to Daegu, South Korea – a place most of the leading athletic nations have never heard of nor indeed could find on a world map. Three things made Berlin such a success: the headline act that was Bolt; the eager and knowledgeable German crowd; and the fact many of their German athletes did so well. I couldn’t name one South Korean athlete if my life depended on it and chances are few people in South Korea could either.

Frankly, it’s hard to imagine a worse venue for the World Championships. It’s only two years since Osaka played host and they were about as low-key a championships as they come. Brisbane, Gothenburg and Moscow were among the candidates and any one of those would have been better than Daegu. (Moscow were later awarded the 2013 World Championships.) If the IAAF were truly interested in making athletics a global sport then why have they yet to award the championships to South America, Africa or Australia? And why have the US never had a go? It’s all very well to see Usain Bolt and the other big stars run the Grand Prix races every couple of weeks over the summer, but it’s the championships that draw the real interest. That’s why Bolt is on the cover of this week’s Sports Illustrated.

Berlin restored a lot of people’s faith and interest in the sport and the danger is it could all go to waste. At least we have a European Championships to look forward to in Barcelona next summer, but even if Bolt does make it to Daegu fit and well, it’s difficult to see him being inspired the way he was in Berlin. In the meantime the only other chance Bolt has to shine on the international stage is at next year’s Commonwealth Games, in that other hotbed of world athletics, New Delhi.

That makes London and the 2012 Olympics the next true showcase for the sport, at least by my reckoning. I don’t know if I can survive that long without getting another hit or a fix of some sort, but the more important question is can athletics survive the withdrawal? That’s the danger in getting hooked on anything.