At a Nitro Athletics press conference in Melbourne, from left: Team Australia co-captain Genevieve Lacaze, Athletics Australia president Mark Arbib, IAAF President Sebastian Coe, Usain Bolt, Victorian state government Minister for Sport John Eren and Nitro board member John Steffensen (© Jake Stevens (organisers))
IAAF President Sebastian Coe said in Melbourne on Friday that Nitro Athletics could be the “innovationary spur” prompting a fresh look at athletics and the way the sport is presented.
Coe said he had watched parts of the first Nitro meeting in Melbourne on Saturday, 4 February, with fellow IAAF Council members in Monaco. And the IAAF President, along with Chief Executive Officer Olivier Gers, watched the second meeting on Thursday night (9 February).
“There were envious looks when I said (to Council members) that we had to hurry off to watch Nitro Athletics,” Coe said.
The IAAF President was speaking at a press conference along with Usain Bolt, who has his own Bolt All-Stars team in the Nitro competition, Athletics Australia president Mark Arbib and Nitro Athletics board member John Steffensen, the Victorian state government Minister for Sport John Eren and Team Australia co-captain Genevieve Lacaze.
'I saw engagement and I saw fun and laughter'
Coe enthused over what he saw on Thursday night. Describing his reaction, he said:
“I thought it was exciting. I saw young people pressing their noses up against the fence trying to get closer to (the athletes). I saw athletes warming up where they’re not able to be seen somewhere else.
“I saw engagement and I saw fun and laughter, and that’s something athletics has been missing for a long time.
Coe said that athletics had to innovate or face becoming “less and less relevant,” and congratulated all involved “who drove the event through some tough times. They kept the faith and last night was a really good example.”
The president described an “ecosystem of athletics,” encompassing the IAAF World championships and Olympic Games, the IAAF Diamond League, Area championships and other competitions. Coe said that the success of the first two Nitro meetings (tickets are already sold out for the third) offered potential ways forward for athletics in general.
Coe also said there had been discussions with Athletics Australia on how to take Nitro Athletics to an international audience and with other Australian sports which have had success with short-format versions of the sport. Gers had met with Cricket Australia on Friday morning to discuss the Big Bash League (cricket’s shortest format) and would be meeting with Tennis Australia as well (Fast Five).
A series that invites and fosters challenge
“The challenge is what can we do to tap into all we’ve seen in the last few days and again tomorrow night. We’ve had conversations today about how we can collaborate.”
Nitro could find a place in the athletics ecosystem, with some of the presentation innovations even finding their way into the World championships.
“Part of the journey to globalise (Nitro) may well be recognising that there is an ecosystem in athletics and this may be the innovationary spur to taking a fresh look at a number of things, including the world championships.
“The one thing I’ve really been keen about the past year is to get people to be challenged, to challenge ourselves, to challenge federations, for the federations to challenge us and I’m really pleased that these guys took up the challenge and ran with it.
“It probably needed the sort of flair that has been seen in other elements of Australian sport to take this on and do it and I’m really pleased that it’s happened here. But we have to figure out what the rest of the journey looks like. That was a large part of the discussion we had this morning,” said Coe.
Praise for Bolt
The enthusiasm of younger spectators has been a key element of the first two meetings. Coe hopes there will be a dividend for the sport.
“I hope a lot of those young athletes watching go out and join an athletics club in the next few weeks and gravitate to the sport generally.”
Coe praised Bolt, sitting alongside him, and admitted he was not looking forward to the day when Bolt retires from the sport. He compared his impact to that of boxing champion Muhammad Ali.
“You’d be surprised if as IAAF President I was looking forward to this guy not racing. It’s a high-class problem when you have an athlete like Usain Bolt in your sport.
“Sparing his blushes, in my lifetime in sport I’ve not seen another athlete grab the sporting landscape since Muhammad Ali. I put them in the same category.
“The big challenge is to make sure when we don’t have Usain out there to get people to recognise our sport is full of extraordinary talent both in track and in field. So, there is more interest than ever in making sure that we put the proper horsepower behind helping the sport.”
Bolt's next challenge? A 150m race on Saturday
Bolt’s departure from the sport he has graced may be on the horizon, but he is not thinking beyond Saturday night’s third and final Nitro meeting, which may see him venture beyond the 100 metres-only limits of his final season to take on the 150.
Bolt acknowledged his emotions had fluctuated wildly during Thursday night’s meeting, which saw the All-Stars overcome a large deficit going into the final event, the mixed 4x100m relay, to narrowly defeat Australia.
The All-Stars got double points as the event was their randomly selected power play, and also had the benefit of a 50-point deduction as Australia was disqualified.
Bolt talked about how “joy, laughter and banter’ had turned to disappointment at the apparent loss to Australia. When he found out that the initial expectation was that Australia would still get the sixth and last-place points and win, “I went a little crazy,” he said.
Bolt said he was revelling in the “energy” of the competition, the interaction with crowds and the need to think on his feet about team strategy.
“It’s fun, because you can do different things for the team effort,” he said.
Like run the 150m.
Len Johnson for the IAAF