Breaking Olympic cycle allows fresh talent to flourish
By Michael Johnson
As the end of 2005 approaches I thought I would reflect on a year of progress for athletics. Compared to other post-Olympic periods, 2005 has been a great year - certainly in comparison to 2001, one of the worst years for the sport (the World Championships in Edmonton were disastrous, completely failing to attract public interest).
But 2005 ushered in some different trends in the sport. The year started off with great performances and excitement in the indoor season. LaShawn Merritt, who was the 2004 world junior champion in 400 metres aged only 18 - having competed in only a few collegiate races - made the controversial decision to jump from college to the professional ranks when he accepted a contract to compete for Nike.
Kerron Clement, the 400m hurdler and another young athlete, impressed many during the indoor season when he broke my indoor 400m record of 44.63sec, running 44.57. There were rumours of young collegiate athletes, such as Clement and 200m specialist Wallace Spearmon, also making the jump from college to professional during the middle of the season.
Clement even held a press conference with his coach to dispel the rumours and announce that he would remain in college and make a decision after the collegiate season concluded. In the last four to five years we have seen a trend emerging where athletes with phenomenal talent, such as Alan Webb and Allison Felix, skipped the American college system and accepted large contracts with shoe companies Other athletes - Jeremy Wariner, for example - sacrificed their final collegiate years to turn professional.
But this year a controversial trend began, where athletes turn professional in the middle of the collegiate season. The problem with this is that it leaves college coaches and their programmes with a major loss after they have committed one of only a handful of scholarships to this athlete.
The more positive sign is that in the past, track and field has been a very cyclical sport, revolving around the four-year Olympic cycle - the shoe company’s willingness to invest in athletes the year after an Olympic Games diminishes greatly. But last year athletes such as Wariner, Clement, Darold Williamson and Spearmon were all signed to large long-term contracts after being courted by all of the major shoe companies.
Another potential trend I noticed at the World Championships is the breakdown of some racial barriers. In the past sprints were always dominated by athletes of African heritage, and mostly American athletes at that, while the distance races have definitely seen a dominance by the African athletes, mainly from Kenya and Ethiopia.
But in the 400m final in Helsinki, athletes of African heritage made up only half of the field, and the top three 400m sprinters in the world for 2005 in my opinion - Wariner, Andrew Rock and Britain’s Tim Benjamin - are all white.
Australian Craig Mottram’s bronze medal in the 5,000m was also a highly positive development, helping to break up the African domination of that event. In order to continue to grow, the sport will have to continue to encourage the widest youth involvement possible.
Young kids who are white, and who want to become sprinters or distance runners, now have role models - that is important to keep them believing that success is possible for them.