In a popularity ranking of major sports in the United States, athletics - or track and field as it is called there - would languish somewhere between beach cricket and curling. Only at Olympic time does it impinge on the public consciousness, and then only thanks to TV packaging, which relies on saccharine biographies of selected competitors rather than examination of their events. Anyone, after a serious assessment of American sprinting strength, would have learnt more in one evening of BBC coverage of Athens than from a week of the pap served up by NBC on the Atlanta Games.
Unlike those major TV sports of American football and baseball, which are virtually unique to North America, track and field involves competition against foreigners. Now foreigners are only of the scantest interest to an irredeemably chauvinist American public. To make matters worse, they have a frequent habit of beating their US rivals. So how do you sell that? One answer would be world records, but even network mega-bucks cannot guarantee that. What's a 9.86sec 100m if it's not a record? Answer: as uninteresting and unpalatable to American viewers as a goalless draw at football (sorry, soccer.)
And so to the last ratings hope of track and field - an extra dash of "charisma" (read the antics of a Denis Rodman or Mike Tyson). Alas, athletics offers neither blood nor human contact. Its greatest practitioners tend to be modest and retiring folk who do not cover themselves with tattoos, pick fights with the media or chew on ear lobes. Only Carl Lewis has used athletics to become a sporting superstar in his own land. But even he owes his American celebrity at least as much to a loud mouth as to his brilliance at his chosen trade.
And consider who else lingers in the memory among American athletes since the war. Incomparables like Ed Moses and Al Oerter? Not really. Immortality requires a dash of the outlandish - the black power salute by Tommy Smith and John Carlos, Bob Beamon's freakish 29ft long jump at the same Mexico City Olympics of 1968, and "the Flop" with which Dick Fosbury quickly revolutionised high jumping.
Britain still cherishes heroes like Bannister and Chataway, Coe and Ovett, Daley Thompson and Linford Christie. Not even shocking gold shoes, however, are unlikely to keep Michael Johnson from obscurity once these World Championships are over. Thus it was after Atlanta, despite his 19.32sec 200 metres, in its way as unbelievable as the Beamon long jump 28 years earlier; and thus it will be after Athens, even if he produces another world record. Let Maurice Greene and Marion Jones be warned. If they want to become famous, they're in the wrong game.Reuse content