The CHill Zone of T&F: Conway's View From the Finish Line

Rivalries Drive Sport

Feb 5th, 2010
10:52 am PST

Filbert Bayi

Russell vs Chamberlin. Lakers vs Celtics. Ali vs Frasier. Rivalries create excitement, enthusiasm, passion and lasting memories, Boxing enthusiasts still talk about The Thrilla in Manilla. The Super Bowl was born of the rivalry between the AFL and the NFL. Magic vs Bird revived a then struggling NBA.

Track and field has had some very storied rivalries in its’ past. Jim Ryun & Kip Kieno, Jim Hines & Charlie Greene, John Walker & Filbert Bayi, Steve Williams & Don Quarrie, Seb Coe & Steve Ovett, and Ben Johnson & Carl Lewis are just a few that immediately come to mind. One of the most hyped events in Olympic Trials history was the “showdown” between Maurice Greene and Michael Johnson over 200 meters at the 2000 Trials – a race in which both men ran each other to injury.

Rivalries bring focus to a sport – hype, tension, excitement, fans, and revenue. With it’s individual nature combined with global nationalism, track and field is a sport that is perfectly geared towards rivalries. The hype of Lewis v Johnson in Rome 1987 was only surpassed by the rematch in Seoul in 1988. The 80’s was also the decade that brought us Coe v Ovett and the anticipation of their racing each other as they traded mile/1500 WR’s in the early part of the decade.

Somehow track and field lost its sense of “rivalry” in the 90’s. A trend that continued into the New Millennium. Possibly because there was so much focus on singular individuals – a la Michael Johnson and Marion Jones. But the rise of Maurice Greene in the latter stages of the 90’s lead us to the inevitable “showdown” between he and Johnson at the Trials of 2000. And once again the sport felt the power of what a rivalry can do for the sport.

Anyone that was in the stadium that week heard the talk, felt the electricity and anticipation of these two sprinting titans going toe to toe. As both sprinters went to the track in pain, however, so did the essence of rivalry in the sport. Because not until the rise of Usain Bolt and Tyson Gay in the past couple of seasons did we see anything truly approaching a true rivalry during the past decade.

But while theirs has become the most easily identifiable rivalry out there, there are several others that the sport should take advantage of as it looks for ways to sell the sport to the public. Following are some rivalries in the making that I feel the sport would do well to capitalize on.

Blanka Vlasic v Arianne Friedrich – Women’s High Jump

Vlasic has a flair for showmanship to go along with her high jumping. Friedrich is just a tough competitor. Together they are nearing Stefka Kostadinova’s twenty two year old WR of 2.09 (6′ 10.25″). The sport could do more to headline its female competitors, and the sport is sorely in need of women in pursuit of its records. Vlasic and Friedrich are capable of headlining any meet.

Lashawn Merritt v Jeremy Wariner – Men’s 400

This is a natural as these two men have dominated the event since 2004. Between them they have won every gold medal at the Games and Worlds from ’04 to present as well as the last three silvers. They are also the only sub 44 performers since the retirement of Michael Johnson. A really down season by Wariner last year put a damper on this rivalry last year, but if both athletes are running low 44s or into the 43’s this is a race that can bring fans to the stands.

Carmelita Jeter v Shelly Ann Fraser – Women’s 100

This pairing takes one of the sports glamour events – the 100 – and adds the US v Jamaica aspect a la Bolt v Gay. Jeter became the second fastest woman in history last year while Fraser won her second gold in a row in the event in Berlin and became the #5 all time performer. Makes for another female match up worth highlighting. And traditionally the sport has been able to capitalize on its female sprint stars with the American v East German Women carrying through the 70’s, 80’s and into the early 90’s. With both the US and Jamaican men and women at the top of the sprint charts, there are several ways to market this rivalry.

Dayron Robles v Liu Xiang – Men’s 110 Hurdles

Talk about a match up with pedigree. Robles is the current WR holder and defending Olympic champion (Beijing). Xiang is the former WR holder (only .01 slower), former Olympic champion (Athens) and a former World champion (Osaka). No other pairing of athletes in the sport brings together the last two WR holders AND Olympic champions! And at only 23 (Robles) and 26 (Xiang) they both still have prime years ahead. Possibly the best match up out there.

Allyson Felix v Veronica Campbell Brown – Women’s 200

Another US v Jamaica pairing with four time World champion Felix against two time Olympic champion Campbell-Brown. These are two of the fiercest competitors in any event – male or female. Both step on the track to win and their races against each other tend to be epic events. Campbell Brown is =8 all time and Felix #14 all time. Given their competitive nature getting the two on the track against each other a bit more often that in majors could get them both further up on the all time list.

Dwight Phillips v Irving Saladino – Men’s Long Jump

One of the advantages of the field events is that they get multiple attempts. Anyone that saw Carl Lewis v Larry Myricks in San Jose in ’87 or Indianapolis in ’88, or Carl Lewis v Mike Powell in Tokyo in ’91 understands just how electric an elite long jump competition can be. Both men have won Olympic and
World Championship gold. Phillips in ’03. ’04, ’05, and ’09. Saladino in ’07 and ’08. Both have bests over 28 feet with Phillips moving into elite territory last year with a huge 28′ 9″ bomb that took him to =5th all time. Here is a rivalry definitely worth cultivating.

David Rudisha v Abubaker Kaki – Men’s 800

Kaki set a huge World Junior record of 1:42.69 just two seasons ago (=13 all time). Last year David Rudisha moved to #4 all time with his sizzling 1:42.01 in Rieti. They are already among the best ever and are only 21 and 22 years old! Among the records of the sport that have seemed nearly unapproachable Wilson Kipketer’s 1997 mark of 1:41.11 has seemed one of the most daunting. Yet we have two young men who clearly have the potential to give chase. Getting these two on the track against each other in pursuit of one of tracks most elusive marks should be a priority for meet promoters around the world.

The excitement of Usain Bolt and Tyson Gay is proof that this sport is starving for high level match ups. The above are just a handful of potential, elite match ups available for the sport to highlight. This sport has star power that is waiting to be unleashed upon the rest of the world. We have more top level elite athletes than ever before. We just need to get them on the track and make the presentation.

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