LORD Sebastian Coe has claimed that a new series of athletics events, ‘Nitro Athletics’, will revolutionise the sport, but the format’s inceptive period has demonstrated it still has a significant way to go to support the IAAF President’s claims.
What is Nitro Athletics?
Nitro Athletics has been promoted as a new era for the sport, adding intriguing new twists to traditional events with additions including mixed relays, power plays, and elimination races.
The competition, currently taking place in Melbourne, consists of six teams each with 12 male and 12 female athletes competing across three evenings of high-energy events that seek to break the barriers between the athletes and crowd.
Amongst the teams taking part are the Bolt All-Stars, who have now claimed victory in both editions of the competition, along with Australia, England, China, Japan and New Zealand.
The new branch of athletics, which culminates in a final on Saturday, has been supported by high-profile names including Usain Bolt and his fellow Olympic gold-medal winning team mate Asafa Powell joining an impressive All-Stars cast.
Track and field with a twist
In each event there are 100 points on offer for first place down to 40 points for sixth place, with 12 events on each night of competition. So far, this allocation has meant for a very competitive leaderboard.
Of course, it’s not as simple as that. Each team has a Power Play, which doubles a team’s point score in a particular event. In the field, a ‘Turbo Charge’ rewards a jump exceeding a declared distance, with bonus points also on offer for javelin accuracy if the athletes can hit a narrow target.
Bolt’s team of All-Stars won the inaugural Nitro Athletics competition in Melbourne last Saturday, before Australia’s disqualification in the mixed 4×100 metre relay on Thursday handed the Jamaican’s team their second victory.
England, captained by 2008 Olympic Gold medallist Christine Ohuruogu, found themselves tied with New Zealand in last place in the first fixture but managed an improved points total to finish fourth in the latest instalment.
The English team may have hoped for better, with three-time Olympian Michael Rimmer joining Commonwealth Games medallists Bianca Williams and Conrad Williams in Ohuruogu’s squad.
Undoubtedly, the most highly-anticipated aspect of Nitro was the exciting changes to traditional events enjoyed by audiences around the world at last summer’s Rio Olympics.
The elimination mile was perhaps one of the most exciting additions to the schedule, spicing up the distance event by eliminating the athlete in last place at the end of each lap.
This makes for a gruelling four laps, with a demanding sprint every 400 metres as the runners compete to stay in the race. A final three then remain to challenge for the win in an event that certainly has legs.
Similarly, the three-minute distance event requires a re-think of conventional tactics with the winning athlete being the one travelling the furthest. To reinforce the team focus at the heart of Nitro, distances are combined from both the men’s and women’s races to decide the points.
The race had a striking resemblance to track cycling’s Kierin event, playing out as a steady effort culminating in final minute sprints to break away for the win. As a result, the early stages remained uneventful in anticipation of the clock.
In the sprints, the 60 metres saw Asafa Powell, who like Bolt was recently stripped of his 2008 Olympic 4×100 metre gold medal, take the win for the All Stars in the men’s race. The issue with such a short race of course, is blink and you will miss it.
The Mixed 4x100m relay saw Usain Bolt take to the track much to the delight of the crowd. The All-Stars have now won the event on both occasions, with Asafa powell running against five of the women representing the other teams in a curious first leg of fixture one.
The developments in the field events are quite exciting; in the pole vault only one attempt is given at each chosen height which invites much more pressure than supplied by the relative comfort of three attempts at major championships.
The Turbo Charge and Bonus points on offer in the long jump and javelin also kept the crowd well engrossed in the proceedings, offering an extra dimension to the normal restricted crescendo clapping expected during run-ups.
Revolutionary, or unnecessary complication?
The introduction of Nitro Athletics certainly cannot take away from the difficult position that Lord Coe finds himself in, following recent developments regarding the extent of his knowledge into systematic doping in Russia.
Track and field was redeemed to an extent at the Rio 2016 Olympics, but the entire build up to the games, and much of the period since, has cast a huge shadow over the sport with further high profile cases of doping.
On a positive note, Nitro Athletics offers a shimmering light through the gloom.
On its’ website, Nitro boldly threatens that ‘Athletics will be revolutionised’. Whilst this is evidently far from the case right now, there are certain aspects of the inaugural format that have great potential.
The event undoubtedly promotes a fun atmosphere with figures such as Bolt out on the track willing on their team-mates, and events such as the elimination race turn more repetitive disciplines into exciting, high-energy spectacles.
But an undeniable attraction of track and field is its simplicity. The raw, innate desire to decide who is the fastest, who can jump and throw furthest, who can push themselves further than anybody else is the unique selling point of track and field.
Nitro Athletics risks cheapening this.
The commentary within the stadium appears as if Nitro is laughing at itself, and whilst the aim of the competition is to be fun it is far from ideal for a long jumper to attempt to ready his mind whilst the stadium announcer informs the crowd he has just seconds remaining to get himself going.
There is also an inescapable concern that the hype surrounding the inaugural Nitro athletics series lies almost entirely on the support of Usain Bolt and his strong involvement both as a team captain and competitor.
Athletics itself has often been forced to piggyback on Bolt’s world appeal over the past decade. If Nitro was to lose Bolt, who plans to retire after next year’s World Championships in London, it would surely lose its legs before it was ever able to run.
It is nonetheless an interesting development for athletics, and crucial though it is for the sport to continue to consider ways of remaining relevant and engaging on a global stage in the future, only time will tell if Nitro proves to be a serious addition to the sporting calendar.
The final fixture takes place on Saturday 11 February, with highlights on BBC 2 at 13.00 GMT on Sunday 12.