MONACO – Athletics has to be able to stand on its own two feet and not rely on personalities raising its profile in the post-Usain Bolt era, says American track legend Michael Johnson.
The sport is adjusting to coping without the Jamaican sprint icon, who combined sublime talent and a showbusiness-style personality to pull in the crowds.
Johnson, the 50-year-old former 200 metres and 400m world record holder -- speaking at the Laureus Awards -- said the sport had no choice but to put its money on fierce competition to make up for times when it would not have personalities with captivating back stories to attract spectators.
Asked if athletics needed personalities to survive as a spectator sport, Johnson said: “I hear that a lot and I get it, I understand that. It definitely helps to have great personalities but sport shouldn't rely on having personalities.
“We may not always have them, sure there may be a rich period of time when there are many great personalities with back stories the media and fans are interested in. And then there may be a drought. What do you do at that point? The sport should be able to stand on its own.”
Johnson, who achieved the 200m/400m Olympic double in Atlanta in 1996 and retained his 400m crown in Sydney in 2000, said athletics should rely on its unpredictability to sell tickets.
“Competition is what it is all about at the end of the day and should be its core as to how to promote your sport,” said Johnson. “The anticipation of fans as to 'who is going to win, we don't know who is going to win?' that's why we watch. We don't watch for the interview with the athlete and to hear their back story, that is the gravy on top.”
Johnson says the key question for the future of the sport is how to attract a young audience who he says do not find it relevant to their lives.
There have been moves to broaden its appeal since British athletics great Sebastian Coe replaced the disgraced Lamine Diack as president of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) by introducing events such as street races, for example.
'How to become relevant'
“There are no simple quick answers to that question,” said Johnson.
“I think we have to become relevant as I think that ship has sailed already. We are not gaining young fans. We have to figure how to do that how to become relevant to the new generation.”
Johnson, though, does not advocate travelling down the winter sports route of adding events like snowboarding that attract a young audience and young participants, compared to the traditional Winter Olympics sports such as alpine skiing.
“I am not sure if that is an appropriate comparison because at the Olympic Games people watch it but outside the Games (they are) not so sure of its competitive presence,” said Johnson.
Johnson, who has become a respected pundit since retiring, believes athletics is a different animal entirely.
“People don't typically go out and see how quickly they can run 100m for recreation!” chuckled Johnson.
“It is a different situation. I don't see it's so simple that we say 'well they (winter sports) are doing this so we should'.
“We have to figure out how a unique sport like athletics, with multiple different disciplines, and not typically recreational activities, can become relevant.”