Athletics is in a state of steady decline. After years of mismanagement, drug scandals, poor marketing and facing increasing competition in the media marketplace from other sports, what was once hugely popular is now but a blip on the radar every 4 years, thanks to the Olympics. In an attempt to breath life back into it, Athletics Australia teamed up with Channel 7 and tourism bodies in Victoria to create Nitro Athletics. Headed by the greatest athlete on the planet, Usain Bolt, it was touted as being the Big Bash of track and field – a fast paced, action packed program of athletics like you’ve never seen before. One would hope this would have been the case considering the large sums of money being paid to Bolt and co for their attendance. What transpired was something far from revolutionary.
I tuned in to see the spectacle. I’ve always loved the sport and had high hopes that this would be its saving grace. Things started a tad shaky…not only the camera work, but the slightly tacky and unenergising opening moments that saw the teams announced to a half-hearted cheer from the 4,000 strong crowd. Sorry, apparently it was 7,000 but that would mean every single seat was filled, along with 1,000 people standing – which was certainly not the case. The front straight had plenty of cheering fans, but there were a heck of a lot of empty seats elsewhere. By the way, down the road was a basketball game that had a higher attendance…and they didn’t need the greatest player on the planet to achieve it.
As the night unfolded we were introduced to the teams and it was awesome to see so many of the Aussie guns in attendance along with some fresh new talent. What an opportunity! But the international teams left little to be excited about. Yep, there was Bolt and a few unfit, former guns, which by the way included a drug cheat in Asafa Powell (But we can pretend that never happened because he’s a nice guy, right) but realistically it was a case of ‘us and them’. All eyes, cameras and commentators seemed fixed on Bolt and the Aussies, with little or no engaging content about the rest of the athletes in attendance. You’d be forgiven for not realising there were two Asian teams running, one from Japan and another representing China.
The commentary and style of the production were the same old, same old. What was meant to be a fast paced program of athletics dragged on with lacklustre camerawork and confusing events, a few of which we never even saw the results for. The commentary was fun but at times a touch ‘Matey’ with inside jokes, mispronounced names and not much informative chat to educate the viewing masses. Speaking of viewership, the broadcast had a reach of 400,000 across the capital cities, which is ok, but nothing to get overly excited about. A highlight would have to have been the elimination mile. It was an exciting format and great to watch unfold. The low point, which might seem a bit controversial, was seeing Bolt for a fleeting moment in his only run for the night and then not seeing the rest of the relay unfold because the cameras only showed the winners crossing the line while all the excitement was back down the straight as local talent Hale stormed home.
The biggest issue I have with the whole Nitro thing is that it should be a sideshow, not the big dance. AA has effectively ruined the domestic track and field season to create a distraction to the fact they are failing the sport. There are few opportunities for athletes to qualify for the world championships and while there might be other venues asking for their own Nitro Events, these same venues, or at least the host cities, once held high performance traditional athletics meets that attracted decent crowds. The true test as to whether this experiment is a success will be seen in the coming years. If registration numbers increase, performances improve and Nitro can survive without Bolt, then it’s a winner. I sure as hell hope it is, because plenty of my friends are aspiring athletes and work tirelessly to achieve their goals and we can only hope those that are employed to support the athletes (IE the staff at AA) are working just as hard.
Written by Dave Byrne, athletics fan and grump