This is a column by Morgan Campbell, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.
Editor’s note: It was announced on Thursday afternoon that Marcell Jacobs will not compete in the Diamond League event in Rabat, Morocco, due to injury. Jacobs may still line up against Fred Kerley on June 2 when the Diamond League stops in Florence, Italy.
The athletes asked, the fans amplified, and the people signing the cheques at Diamond League Rabat, the track meet scheduled for this Sunday in Morocco, delivered the hottest matchup in the sport.
Fred Kerley from the U.S. against Italy’s Marcell Jacobs over 100 metres.
Jacobs is the long jumper turned sprint specialist turned surprise Olympic champion — two summers ago he ran 9.80 to win gold in Tokyo. And Kerley is the quarter-miler turned 100-metre dasher turned world champion. Last summer in Oregon, he ran 9.86 to lead a U.S. medal sweep in the world championships’ glamour event.
Until Jacobs and Kerley’s next meeting.
Scheduled for the following Friday in Rome.
Plenty of depth and talent
We should probably also mention some of the six other sprinters contracted to run in Rabat, because they matter.
Trayvon Bromell will be there. He won 100-metre bronze at the world championships last year. Ferdinand Omanyala of Kenya will also line up. He ran a world-leading 9.84 seconds in the 100 metres earlier this month.
No, a full-field, eight-lane 100-metre race isn’t exactly the one-on-one rundown social media has been asking for, match races being the latest in a series of ideas track and field stakeholders hope will broaden and deepen their sport’s appeal. And they have a point. Most of us would rather watch Tyson Fury against Oleksandr Usyk than a battle royale with eight heavyweights. People wanted Bailey-Johnson 2.0, and meet directors delivered… a track meet.
But for all their parallels, including endless search for a product that consistently pleases both avid and casual fans, track and field is not boxing. The people promoting Diamond League Rabat didn’t need to stage the track equivalent of Ali-Frazier. They just spent big money to make the most of the sport’s current format, which still doesn’t make much room for match races.
The risk for people seeking clean storylines is that somebody other than Kerley or Jacobs wins. But that possibility also adds intrigue to Sunday’s race. Whatever factors we think might help convert casual observers into committed ones — personalities, plotlines, social media presence — track and field’s power brokers are still selling competition.
The men’s 100-metre race headlining Diamond League Rabat has plenty of it. Eight sprinters, 16 world and Olympic medals among them.
With stakes this high, we can view Diamond League Rabat as the outdoor track and field equivalent of Christmas Day in the NBA. The season began almost eight weeks ago, but the unofficial start is Sunday, when a critical mass of big names meets on a big stage, for big money and bragging rights.
These days, competing in track and field must feel a little like boxing professionally, or working in print media. In all those rackets, talent is tasked with turning out a top-flight product, while also thinking deep thoughts about saving the business, and each big event doubles as a referendum on the industry’s health and future.
The stakes didn’t seem as high in the Usain Bolt era, when a single, dominant sprinter had the sport’s highest-profile discipline in a hammerlock. Bolt won each of the six Olympic 100 and 200-metre finals he contested, and his once-in-a-lifetime display of speed and staying power simplified the process of branding the sport. When casual fans, who tune in for the Olympics and not much else, thought of track and field, they could always picture Bolt.
Four different gold medallists at the four global championships since Bolt’s last win in 2016. Great news if you love parity, but a drag if you’re a casual fan who wants a fast, unambiguous answer to the question of who the World’s Fastest Man is. Imagine explaining the NFL’s hierarchy of stars to a newbie without being able to reference quarterbacks like Patrick Mahomes and Jalen Hurts. Still possible, but a lot trickier.
So shout out to organizers at Diamond League meets in Florence, Italy, and then in Rabat, for booking Jacobs and Kerley, and announcing that matchup first, as if it were a one-on-one. They didn’t deceive the audience; they just presented a regular high-stakes race as the kind of extra-special occasion that resonates beyond track and field’s dedicated band of hardcore fans.
The four favourites
The avid track followers among us recognize that, on paper, any one of four people is equipped to win this race.
Kerley, of course, has already run 9.88 in the 100 this season. On May 5 in Doha, he reeled in a world class field to win a Diamond League 200-metre race in 19.92 seconds.
Those performances are current, and so they make Jacobs the B-side in this main event. He ran 6.41 to win a world indoor title in 2022, but we haven’t seen him healthy and at full speed in the 100 since Tokyo in 2021.
As for Bromell — he’s capable of a world-leading time at any point in any season, and his 9.76 personal best is tied for fastest in the field. But this is also his first 100-metre race of the season, so we can’t tell yet which way he’s trending.
And then there’s Omanyala, who might boast the most impressive blend of speed and muscle mass since Bo Jackson. If I didn’t already know he ran for a living, I might think he was a powerlifter, sprinting to warm up for a 600-pound squat. He has a huge engine that burns a lot of fuel, witness his late-race flameout in a 150-metre dash against Noah Lyles. But are you willing to write him off at 100 metres?
Granted, none of these sprinters is the face of track and field, but none of them needs to be. It’s not a drawback that men’s sprinting lacks the single, dominant figure it enjoyed during Usain Bolt’s reign. Seven of the eight sprinters confirmed for Sunday have run the 100 in 9.93 seconds or faster. That much depth is a blessing.
If some male sprinter develops into somebody unbeatable between now and the Paris Olympics, he’ll enhance the sport’s mainstream appeal. But until then, the men’s sprints are flush with some of the sport’s most marketable assets.
Fast people, thin margins and big egos.
Season starts now.
WATCH l Rob Pizzo, Morgan Campbell react to Diamond League opener in Doha: