By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Usain Bolt fired his team of international ‘All Stars’ to victory in the inaugural Nitro Athletics Series in Melbourne on Saturday, capping the glitzy event with a dominant win in the 4x100m relay to pip hosts Australia in the final standings.
Running the second leg of the relay, the eight-times Olympic gold medal-winner took the baton from fellow Jamaican sprinter Asafa Powell before Jeneba Tarmoh and Natasha Morrison powered to the finish in front of a sell-out crowd at Lakeside Stadium.
Having run in only the relays in the opening two installments of the three-night series, Bolt also took his first individual run of the year, burning away from a modest field for an easy win in the 150m sprint ahead of New Zealander Joseph Millar.
The ‘All-Stars’ finished the team-based meeting with 3,040 points, edging Australia by 77 points, with Bolt playing a key role as both his team’s linchpin and the event’s ‘chief entertainment officer’.
But the final score was less important than the crowds and television figures for an event that promised to “revolutionize” athletics by borrowing heavily from the formula of sport and entertainment that has underpinned Twenty20 cricket’s considerable success.
“It was brilliant, it was exciting. Tonight came down to the last event and I think everyone in the track and field world really enjoyed this,” Bolt, who was paid a seven-figure sum to run in Melbourne and was given a stake in the Series, told reporters on the track.
“I knew that this is what track and field needed.
“I’m just happy the event came together the way that it did. We know we have improvements to do … We’re going to keep trying to improve it along the way.”
With a sprinkling of big international names and a number of athletes well off peak fitness, the entertainment outweighed the quality of the sport but the parochial crowd warmly embraced the team rivalries and the novel program of events.
IAAF president Sebastian Coe, battling to lift the sport’s profile outside of the Olympics and repair its reputation after a series of major doping and corruption scandals in recent years, was impressed.
“I thought it was a terrific start,” said Coe, who attended the latter two nights of the Series.
“It’s an obvious thing to say but unless we innovate we are going to become less and less relevant and we can’t afford to do that.”
The three nights of the Series drew over 23,000 spectators, nearly double the total attendance for the entire program of athletics events across Australia last year.
It was not without its teething problems.
Organizers were red-faced during Thursday’s second installment when the meeting referee botched the score in the final relay and awarded the night to Australia rather than the ‘All-Stars’, leaving an incredulous Bolt crying foul.
The error was corrected, putting the ‘All-Stars’ rightly on top, but not before the live broadcast was finished and much of the crowd had filed out of the stadium.
With ‘power play’ events awarding double points to winners and an unorthodox program of mile eliminations, mixed distance medleys and 300m relays, there was inevitably confusion at times among some athletes and fans.
Bolt, who is contracted to bring his ‘All-Stars’ to Australia for the next two years, said he hoped to make the event international and attract overseas investors.
But with his retirement after the world championships in London, his absence from the track will be a big test for the Series’ ambitions.
“In my lifetime, I’ve not seen anyone grab the sporting landscape, probably not since Muhammad Ali,” said British distance running great Coe.
“The big challenge is to make sure that when we don’t have Usain out there, that the world recognizes that the sport is full of extraordinary talent.”
(Editing by Pritha Sarkar)