Why are Bolt and Gay never in the same shot?


ATHLETICS:The greatest rivalry in athletics isn’t just being underplayed but hardly being played at all. It’s a great waste of hype for a sport increasingly lacking in it, writes IAN O'RIORDAN

SO MUCH for the summer. After stocking up on Prosecco and charcoal last weekend, it felt more like winter on Thursday evening as we huddled up to watch the Bislett Games from Oslo – wondering if we should actually light the fire.

Oslo has always been one of my favourite stops on the circuit, and fortunately is still brought live to our sitting rooms courtesy of our friends at BBC 3. This did require some extensive channel searching (it’s apparently also available in something called high definition), and yet proved well worth the hunt: everything about those balmy Scandinavian evenings in June, the sell-out crowds and rhythmic hand-clapping, still remind me of why we fell in love with this sport in the first place.

As it turned out, it was pouring rain and unseasonably cold in Oslo as well, but that didn’t take from another enjoyable evening of armchair athletics.

Although largely rebuilt in 2004, the famous old Bislett Stadium remains instantly recognisable. This place has witnessed 69 world records over the years, beginning in 1924 when Adriaan Paulen ran the 500 metres in 63.8 seconds, plus several more all-time classics, including Ron Clarke’s 27:39.4 for 10,000m, in 1965, and Steve Cram’s brilliant 3:46.32 mile in 1985.

There were no world records on Thursday, but what helps earn the Bislett Games its great reputation – along with similarly celebrated meetings in Zurich and Brussels – is the assembly of all-star fields, as the biggest names in each event go head-to-head. The Dream Mile, Oslo’s blue ribbon event, was always a who’s-who of middle distance running, although one year they did put on a special 1,500m for Steve Ovett, because he didn’t want to race Sebastian Coe in the mile.

Anyway, sport has always thrived on pitting the great rivalries against each other, and athletics is no exception. Ali vs Frazier wasn’t based on one fight alone.

Yet the greatest rivalry in athletics right now isn’t just being underplayed but hardly being played at all. It’s a great waste of hype for a sport that’s increasingly lacking in it.

The Bislett Games concluded with Usain Bolt in the 200m, and the big Jamaican didn’t disappoint the capacity crowd of 14,800 when he splashed halfway around the track in 19.86 seconds – the fastest in the world this year, although still some way short of his 19.19 world record. It was Bolt’s first 200m since 2009 and he won by half a second.

He then danced and posed his way around a lap of honour and, presumably, everyone went home happy.

Yet the sport needs more than this. Later today, some 4,000 miles away from Oslo, Tyson Gay will run the 100m at the Diamond League meeting in New York. Bolt doesn’t plan to race again until July 8th, in Paris, and unless I’ve missed something, Bolt and Gay won’t race each other this season until the evening of Sunday, August 28th – at the World Championships in Daegu, South Korea, at approximately 8.45pm local time.

That’s 12.45pm Irish time – and similarly scheduled across most other athletic-minded countries. In other words, at the very tail end of the season, early on a Sunday afternoon: not exactly prime time.

Talk about lost opportunities: Bolt and Gay are the fastest 100m sprinters in history, and between them have run the five fastest times. Bolt leads the way with his world record 9.58, but Gay isn’t all that far behind with his best of 9.69 – and on current form there wouldn’t be much between them at all.

Indeed, Gay beat Bolt in their only meeting of 2010, in Stockholm, even though Bolt was obviously nursing a back injury, and the American has already run quicker this season as well – his 9.79 in Florida last weekend bettered Bolt’s season best so far of 9.91.

The great pity – or rather shame – is that Bolt and Gay aren’t racing each other more regularly. It doesn’t have to be every week, but three or four clashes before Daegu would be fantastic – setting up a win-loss record that could only add to the hype of their championship showdown.

Not surprisingly, money has something to do with it: it’s not that meeting promoters can’t afford to bring them together, because they’ve tried – but rather partly because of Andre Agassi.

In 2006, Agassi lost an appeal in the British courts against the rule which allows the government there to demand their take on sponsorship money from international athletes competing in Britain. Agassi was still on big money from Nike at the time, and thus lost a fair chunk of this to Britain’s tax net after competing in events such as Wimbledon.

This has become known as the “Agassi Tax Rule”, and once Bolt got word of it, he effectively stopped competing in Britain altogether.

In fact, Bolt was originally due to race Gay in the London Diamond League meeting last August, but withdrew because of the “Agassi Tax Rule” – plus the fact the government would have taken 50 per cent of his appearance fee (an estimated €170,000 per race).

Around the same time, Bolt had signed a new three-year deal with Puma, worth an estimated €24 million – the largest such endorsement in athletics history – and even a couple of races in Britain a year could see him forfeit around 20 per cent of that to the government.

Thankfully, one of the events exempt from this law is the London Olympics (last month’s Champions League final in Wembley was also exempt), so Bolt won’t have to worry about losing any money from his potential Olympic showdown with Gay.

So, for financial reasons or otherwise, armchair athletics fans are being denied the full value of this perfect rivalry over the perfect sprint distance – an event also perfectly suited to the attention span of today’s television audiences. Now that Gay has also ruled himself out the 200m this season, then, assuming they do meet in Daegu, it will only be over the 100m.

Gay may also appear somewhat dull and introverted compared to Bolt the showman, but that’s all part of what makes their rivalry so special: they’re almost complete opposites. Bolt’s comments this week about playing for Manchester United were particularly hilarious, but look how many headlines he created?

Bolt knows how to put on a great show: “I’ve never been out of business,” he said after his apparent return to form in Oslo. “I think business was just slow.”

The biggest danger in all of this is that one or even both of them could get injured before Daegu, and where will the sport be then?

In the meantime, I’m told the New York Diamond League meeting this evening is also live on the BBC red button – if I can figure out where that is.

And by the way, Ireland’s Paralympic star Jason Smyth, who now trains with Gay in Florida, has got himself a lane in the 100m. At least we’ll get see how racing against the best will bring him on.