‘Superhuman’ wanted, Bolt exit leaves vacuum to fill

US athlete Justin Gatlin kneels in front of Jamaica's Usain Bolt after Gatlin won the ...
US athlete Justin Gatlin kneels in front of Jamaica's Usain Bolt after Gatlin won the final of the men's 100m athletics event at the 2017 IAAF World Championships at the London Stadium in London on August 5, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / ANTONIN THUILLIER

Usain Bolt’s retirement leaves a huge vacuum to fill but athletics is moving in the right direction in rebranding itself after scandals that seriously damaged its image, according to sports marketing experts.

At one point, following serious allegations about former athletics boss Lamine Diack as well as the Russian doping scandal, the sport resembled the Jamaican superstar in his last appearance in a championship final, Saturday’s 4×100 metres relay, lying prone down and out on the track.

However, under the leadership of Diack’s successor Sebastian Coe, president of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the governing body say it is beginning to take the right steps in restoring its image.

“The authorities are making it more accessible and improving its presentation and taking it into an urban environment with street races,” Jon Tibbs, chairman of leading sport public relations firm Jon Tibbs Associates (JTA), told AFP.

“It is becoming more accessible and more cool but then it has to take into account that it is competing with sports such as parkour.”

Michael Payne, who as director of marketing at the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is widely credited with transforming both its brand and finances through sponsorship, told AFP that Coe has taken measures which has seen the sport “turn a corner” but from a “very low base”.

“There is an awful lot to do post the Diack era,” said Payne speaking by phone from Switzerland.

“The issues facing athletics go far beyond losing a superstar of Bolt’s stature. With no disrespect intended, superstars come and they go.”

Payne, who after leaving the IOC in 2004 performed a similar role with Formula One, said Coe had brought much needed dynamism on the back of his leading the winning bid for the 2012 Olympics and then staying on to deliver a successful London Games.

“They (the sport) have to ensure they are in robust health and clearly they were allowed to drift significantly off track,” said Payne.

“Coe has been instigating a drastic restructuring at grassroots level but you also need great events and London (the world championships) seen from afar has been a huge success. So they are still capable of delivering a great championships.

“Bolt has shown he is willing to act as an ambassador and he can play an important role in bringing the sport back to a pre-eminent position.”

– ‘They were true rock stars’ –

Tibbs, who has been honoured by Queen Elizabeth II for his services to international trade and sports, says the sport does need to find a “superhuman” replacement.

He equates the loss of Bolt to how golf has suffered since Tiger Woods went into meltdown.

“Golf has declined in many markets since Woods was in his pomp, although it is not in terminal decline.

“Jordan Spieth is a great player but not a lot of people would be racing to jump out of bed and say I want to be the next Jordan Spieth.

“Woods and Bolt had exactly the same unbeatable aura, broke records and had a maverick edge to them. They were true rock stars.

“Rory McIlroy has the maverick edge but is simply not winning enough to warrant being in the same camp.”

Payne, who says the awarding of medals several years after the event is not good for the “image of the sport” as it undermines spectators’ confidence that what they are watching in London is fair competition, believes one area the sport should address is modernising the way it presents itself.

“One of the challenges the sport is facing in 2017 is athletics shown on television isn’t as conducive to what it was 30 years ago.

“I am not sure athletics has moved with the times to a new media environment.”

Tibbs, whose company played a leading role in Sochi winning the 2014 Winter Olympics amongst other successes, says the sport is moving forwards after some very rough times.

“I would give them, for the moment, the benefit of the doubt that things are moving in the right direction.

“However, it is up to Coe, WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency), athletes entourages and event organisers to get together and enforce change.

“That is the challenge facing Coe.”


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