Noah Lyles has a nail technician. This isn’t a sentence I ever expected to write.
But hey, the world’s fastest man is expected to be stylish and eccentric. If he wants to get a design on his nails, it’s just fine. If he enjoys some gentle trash-talking, it’s acceptable. If he tells the cameras after his 100m win at the World Athletics Championships, “They said I wasn’t the one. But I thank God that I am,” that’s brilliant.
In a world obsessed with football (or cricket in this geography), steeped in the US’ National Basketball Association, fanatical about Formula One and dutifully charting Novak Djokovic’s weekly wrestles with Carlos Alcaraz, how does track and field even steal a headline?
You would think track and field shouldn’t require any advertising because running and throwing is such an essential human thing. “Wisely, and slow; they stumble that run fast,” wrote William Shakespeare, but he was wrong. Everyone finds poetry in running fast. Tom Cruise. Pickpockets. Princess Diana once at a Mother’s Day race. The Kalenjin people of Kenya. Virat Kohli between the wickets. Kids of every size chasing each other downstairs as they laugh. There is a glee to fast and everything once was a race. Even before cricket bats were flourished, we were saying “Beat you to it”.
Fast is how the Ancient Olympics began, and the Modern. In 776 BCE, in a foot-race over 600-plus feet, Coroebus of Elis won and is regarded as the first recorded winner in Olympia. Olive wreaths, wrote Ludwig Drees in his book Olympia: Gods, Artists And Athletes, were yet to be awarded. The prize was an apple, which seems particularly fitting. Coroebus, after all, was a cook.
The first race of the Modern Olympics in 1896 was a 100m heat. In 1900, there was the standing triple jump and in 1912, a two-handed shot put. Our first great god was Faster but then came Higher and Stronger. The triple jump used to be the hop, skip and jump. Javelin throwing appeared too technical till Neeraj Chopra turned everyone in India into a biomechanical expert. An old pal in school, wielding a bamboo pole usually reserved to hold up mosquito nets, would pole-vault on to sandbags.
By the time I was a boy, my dad was filling my head with heroes. Jim Thorpe, the 1912 decathlete, extraordinary yet persecuted, competing once with mismatched shoes and feted by a Swedish king and a Russian czar. Wilma Rudolph, the graceful 100m Olympic champion, who refused to attend her homecoming parade if it was not integrated. Four-gold discus thrower Al Oerter, who in Rome 1960 casually threw beyond the world record marker while warming up for the qualifying round.
Track and field was sport at its most elemental, the centrepiece of any Games, and the first chapter in David Wallechinsky’s The Complete Book Of The Olympics (where every other sport is arranged alphabetically). For a while, the two great crowns of sport were Heavyweight Champion Of The World and Fastest Human On The Planet.
Yet this week’s World Athletics Championships—it has been only three days as I write this—is not even being broadcast in Singapore, where I live. Nor have reporters from many newspapers been sent to Budapest. In a post-Usain Bolt world, this track-and-field tribe rarely features in sporting arguments or on any Forbes Highest-Paid Athletes list. And while we can name the booted bench of Liverpool, we might struggle to pick out spiked legends in a crowd. Can you recognise Sifan Hassan (5,000m and 10,000m champion at the Tokyo Olympics 2020 and winner in London on her marathon debut this year)? Or Yulimar Rojas, the smooth, dynamic, dramatic 1.92m women’s triple jumper?
When did you last go to a meet? It might take some rewinding. Appetites have altered and an evening of track and field can feel too long to some. Mondo Duplantis, pole vaulter who lives in seventh heaven, has been resetting human limits so frequently that a mascot held up a sign at a meet which read “World Record. Rinse. Repeat”. And yet, while his competition has a tense drama, it unfolds through a cycle of heights and attempts and our limited attention spans often can’t stand it. Elsewhere, Eliud Kipchoge, a saint in shoes, runs at speeds for two hours that defy understanding and yet we can’t last the distance with him.
The AP Athlete Of The Year award, primarily involving US athletes, was last given to a track and field performer in 1996. The recipient was that stiff-backed guru of the 200m and 400m, Michael Johnson, who wrote on X (formerly Twitter) in April that “if you were to design a sport for success in today’s sports market, it would look nothing like today’s track”.
Then he explained the problem as follows:
“Trend: Quick action vs. Track: Slow action
Trend: Niche vs. Track: Variety
Trend: Single story narrative vs. Track: Multiple stories
Trend: Competition/Storytelling vs. Track: Times & records”
Maybe the sport needs a version of tennis’ and golf’s quarterly majors. Maybe it needs to better highlight its characters. Maybe it needs regular head-to-head duels. Maybe hard change has to come. Sebastian Coe, long-time president of World Athletics, recently admitted the sport is in “a race against time” and that a review of which events are popular is under way. Will the hammer be thrown out?
Hermes, patron of athletics and Greek god who moved on winged sandals, must be shuddering. An almost sacred enterprise, once so scarred by doping and now by disinterest, needs better protection. Of all sports on this planet, this still feels the most relatable. On my reading table at home is a lovely gift, a small, square piece of marble, a memento from the Panathenaic Stadium in Greece which hosted the 1896 Olympics. The stadium is older still. Written on the marble is “2,500 years of history” and drawn on it are four ancient figures.
Humans in full stride.
Rohit Brijnath is an assistant sports editor at The Straits Times, Singapore, and a co-author of Abhinav Bindra’s book A Shot At History: My Obsessive Journey To Olympic Gold. He posts @rohitdbrijnath.