Duncan Mackay

Yeah Baby! "A weekend unlike any other!" Hype for the first Los Angeles Grand Prix at the University of California's Drake Stadium last Saturday (May 27) was predictably Hollywood.

The meeting, which promised an "incomparable elite field", was marketed as the relaunch of top-class athletics - or track and field as it is known in the United States - in the Californian city as it prepares to host the Olympic Games for a third time in 2028.

"LA used to be the pinnacle of the track and field world - and we intend to reignite that passion in one of the largest and most successful running communities in the world," said Bobby Kersee, an organiser and one of the sport’s most successful coaches having worked with Olympic gold medallists, including the late Florence Griffith Joyner, Gail Devers and his own wife, legendary heptathlete Jackie Joyner Kersee.

United States Track & Field chief executive Max Siegel was just as much on message. 

"We're viewing the LA meet as an incubator of exciting new approaches for engaging our athletes, fans, and communities," he said. 

"We're back in LA to stay in a big way."

An official attendance of 7,249 was announced in a stadium with a capacity of 12,000, although it was later claimed that the actual crowd was closer to 4,500. 

How ever many people were there, it was a lot less than the 17,000 who turned up to the bottom of the table Major League Soccer team LA Galaxy's match against Charlotte FC.

Most of the crowd at the athletics went home happy after seeing the United States' Ryan Crouser break his own world record in the shot put.

But the main storyline for many was the failure of so many of America’s leading athletes to show up for a meeting billed as so important to the sport's future in the country.

Olympic 400 metres hurdles gold medallist and three-time world champion Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone failed to appear, despite having been advertised among the leading names.

Rai Benjamin and Michael Norman, two other Olympic gold medallists from Tokyo 2020, were also no-shows.

Sha’Carri Richardson clocked a fast time in qualifying for the 100 metres at the Los Angeles Grand Prix, but then failed to appear in the final, disappointing many of the crowd ©Getty Images
Sha’Carri Richardson clocked a fast time in qualifying for the 100 metres at the Los Angeles Grand Prix, but then failed to appear in the final, disappointing many of the crowd ©Getty Images

Even those that did turn up only put in half a shift.

Sha’Carri Richardson, widely considered as the sport’s best female sprinter at the moment, and Aleia Hobbs, a member of the US 4x100m relay team that won the World Championships gold last year, along with Ivorian Marie-Josee Ta Lou, all failed to show up in the final of the 100m having run the three fastest times in the qualifying rounds.

In public at least, Siegel tried to be philosophical about the withdrawals.

"If you look at it from a purely commercial standpoint, it obviously contributes to a little bit of frustration in terms of marketing the event," he told the Los Angeles Times. 

"You look at it from keeping the athletes safe and healthy and prepared, I mean, we have bigger events, so a lot of these competitions are meant to get them fitness ready.

"So, you do understand that stuff happens."

The refusal of the three fastest sprinters to meet each other in meaningful competition and the failure of others to even turn up, was a perfect vignette of a problem that has affected athletics as long as almost anyone can remember. 

Outside of the Olympic Games and major championships, head-to-head races between the top athletes are rare. 

Sport is built on rivalries, but in athletics, most of the top competitors seem to do as much as they can do to avoid racing each other. 

As is so often the case, it was four-time Olympic gold medallist Michael Johnson who best summed up what most people were thinking.

"This meet was initially announced as a game changer for the sport," he wrote on Twitter

"The highlight of that announcement was a music festival but included no plans to address the obvious problems of the sport. 

"For that reason, my expectation for the meet was that it would be no game changer but actually more of the same.

"Three months prior to the meet a headline music artist few people were familiar with was announced but nothing at all about athletes or matchups.

"Some big-name athletes were eventually announced but quickly pulled out.

"Few major matchups, few big names, athlete complaints, poor date planning. 

"How does an organisation plan for a meet to be a game changer, but instead end up with the meet actually being a perfect example of all the current problems?

"This is not easy, but it becomes harder when you make a big announcement about a game changer, and you didn’t change anything."

Steve Ovett, left, and Sebastian Coe, right, avoided each other outside the Olympics but their rivalry still helped raise interest in athletics ©Getty Images
Steve Ovett, left, and Sebastian Coe, right, avoided each other outside the Olympics but their rivalry still helped raise interest in athletics ©Getty Images

The next day, nearly 6,000 miles away, the latest meeting in the World Athletics Diamond League series took place in Rabat. 

I managed to catch the last race of the meeting on television and there was clearly a great atmosphere as Morocco's world and Olympic champion Soufiane El Bakkali stormed to 3,000m steeplechase victory in a personal best, despite slowing down to enjoy the moment in the closing metres.

Again, though, one of the main talking points of the event was a late withdrawal, this time Italy’s Olympic 100m champion Marcell Jacobs pulling out of an anticipated showdown against Fred Kerley, the American who has started the season in great form.

The fashion of athletes not racing against each other in meetings outside major championships probably started with the rivalry between current World Athletics President Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett at its height more than 40 years.

They two British middle-distance runners traded the world mile record back and forth in 1979 and 1980 without facing each other on the track, riveting sports fans across the globe. 

So, the anticipation bubbled over when they arrived at the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, which were being boycotted by much of the West.

Their expected showdowns in the 800m and 1500m races at Moscow 1980 provoked a storm of headlines, even in countries that were not sending athletes to the Games. 

Ovett won the 800m, then Coe struck back to win the 1500m.

By the time the duo retired, they had faced each other only six times in their careers, but the difference was that their avoidance of each other, actually kept the sport in the spotlight because it was like a soap opera where everyone had their favourite. 

You were either for the blue-collar Ovett, moody and introverted, who hated talking to the press and didn’t care if that upset them. 

Or you were for the university-educated Coe, who had the easy charm of a natural politician, which he would later become, and courted the media to his advantage. (One of the great privileges of my journalistic career, was one late night in a bar in Helsinki to find myself in the unbelievably fortune position of enjoying a beer with both Coe and Ovett as they discussed those great days).

The one thing that united Coe and Ovett was on the track, when they normally delivered with record-breaking performances, which only helped build up the anticipation for the day when they would finally meet each other.

They, though, were the exception because in the case of most athletes, unless they can pop a world record, which by its very definition is a difficult thing to do, by avoiding each other it frustrates the public and leaves them feeling short changed. 

In the end, they end up not caring about any of these athletes.

Michael Johnson (again) explained it best in another recent post on social media about why so many athletes do not want to put their reputations on the line.

The Diamond League is supposed to be an elite series of meetings but to the public outside the sport is hardly known - they only really care about the Olympics and World Championships.

"OLY & WCH = Big money, big recognition, career legacy, end of year ranking," Johnson posted on Twitter.

"Pro Meets = Small money, no recognition, risk to end of year ranking."

Most top athletes rely on contracts with the major sports shoe manufacturers to earn decent salaries and their bonus structures reflects what matters to the public, the Olympics and World Championships. 

So, it is no wonder that today’s top competitors target these events at the expense of smaller meetings. It is understandable but makes it a lot harder to market the sport.

Track and field may not matter that much in the US, but the Olympics matter a lot. 

It means that come the final of the women's 100m at the 2028 Olympics, you can be sure that not only will all the top runners be on the start line, but there will be a capacity crowd of 77,500 inside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Let’s hope that those dedicated athletics fans that turned up at Drake Stadium last weekend are fortunate enough to get a ticket.