Usain Bolt is used to being the star of the show. But when he competes in the first meeting of Nitro Athletics in Melbourne this Saturday (4) night, the event will be centre stage every bit as much as its star attraction.
Since his 100 and 200 metres gold medals at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games – each achieved with world record performances – Bolt has pretty much transcended track and field. Rarely does another competitor steal the headlines.
Maybe nothing can take the limelight off the man widely regarded as the greatest athlete ever, but Nitro will at worst share it.
Nitro Athletics is being touted as a new, team-based competition with a unique format combining traditional athletic events with a new era of athletic practice. Like a jazz variation on a standard musical classic, purists will recognise the melody while a new audience applauds the improvisations.
Concept praised for its innovative approach
That is the hope, anyway, a hope shared by Athletics Australia, which has backed the concept, by Bolt, who has equity in the new competition, and by IAAF president Sebastian Coe. Bolt’s involvement has attracted free-to-air television coverage, the first for athletics in Australia for a long time.
“This is the right move forward,” Bolt said at the launch of the new competition last November. “I’m going to be part of a team – 12 males, 12 females. It’s going to be very exciting.”
Coe praised the potential of Nitro Athletics in a statement marking one month to go. While affirming that athletics remained “the cornerstone” of the Olympic Games and the World championships were “an incredibly strong and attractive event,” the IAAF president said:
“We need innovation and more opportunities for our athletes to interact with fans and show their personalities – and Nitro Athletics is a great example of what can be done and what needs to be done to revolutionise how we present our sport and how our fans connect with the sport and the athletes.”
There will be innovation to spare at the Nitro meetings. In line with the finest wedding traditions, there will also be things old and borrowed to complement the new and blue. Athletes will warm up on the ground, with autograph sessions and ‘selfies’ before the competition; combined placings will determine team results in many events; there will be ‘power plays’ and ‘turbo charges’ for bonus points and, goodness gracious, don’t be surprised if great balls of fire feature in athlete introductions.
Bolt captains Jamaican squad
Bolt is the biggest of the stars competing in the three-meeting Nitro series (4, 9 and 11 February) and is captain of his own team, The Bolt All-Stars. His teammates include fellow-Jamaicans Asafa Powell and Michael Frater, Olympic 400m hurdles champion Kerron Clement of the USA and rising US star Jarrion Lawson who went within a trailing hand of winning the long jump at the Rio Olympics.
The English team is headed by Beijing 2008 400m gold medallist Christine Ohuruogu, Australia’s stars include Ryan Gregson, Linden Hall, Genevieve Lacaze and long jumper Fabrice Lapierre while hurdlers Xie Wenjun and Wataru Yazawa compete for China and Japan, respectively.
The team concept also allows for the integration of Paralympic events into the scoring. Rio 2016 Paralympic T47 long jump champion Anna Grimaldi competes for New Zealand while T42 100 metres gold medallist Scott Reardon is part of the Australian team.
Athletics fans are familiar with team competition in many formats – the IAAF Continental Cup, the European Cup, US Collegiate dual meet and Finnkampen, the annual international match between Finland and Sweden.
Bold strategy can bring bonus points
Nitro Athletics will add a couple of twists to the traditional mix. The Nitro Power Play will offer double points for one selected event nominated by the team captain. Each team will get the opportunity for one power play during the competition.
The Nitro Turbo Charge will apply in the long jump only. Competitors can nominate one jump where they attempt to clear a nominated distance, say eight metres for men or 6.60m for women and get bonus points for doing so. An acceptable nominated distance will depend on the conditions and results already achieved in the competition.
Usain Bolt is no stranger to the consequences of the no-false start rule normally applying in athletics. His one individual blemish since Beijing 2008 came when he was disqualified for a break in the Daegu 2011 world championships 100m final. False starts will instead incur a points penalty in the Nitro competition.
There will be innovation in the event structure, too. Individual sprints will be over 60, 150 and 300m. The mile race on the first night will be enlivened with a ‘devil-take-the-hindmost’ rule under which the last runner drops out each completed lap. A 3-minute distance challenge, in which a woman runs as far as she can for three minutes before handing over to a male teammate to do the same thing, will feature on all three nights.
Relays – both medley and traditional 4x100 and 4x400 – will be run as mixed teams, men and women.
Some things will not change, however, such as the traditional Jamaican sprinter antipathy to the 400 metres.
Bolt was clear at the launch that he would do anything for his team – anything, that is, except the gruelling one-lapper.
In Melbourne on Wednesday, Powell drew the line 250 metres earlier.
“Anything over 150 is a no-no. If the captain says I’m going to have to do a 300 we’re going to have a fight on the track, a serious fight.”
Someone will do the 300 and the 400, though, Powell added.
“The captain will organise it . . . because we need to win. You know how he loves to win.”
Bolt will not be on his own in hoping Nitro Athletics is a winner.
Len Johnson for the IAAF