Recently, Usain Bolt participated in an exhibition “race” against a commuter bus over 80 meters in Buenos Aires. And as you can see from the video below, of course the world’s fastest man crossed the tape first because, well, the 30,000 in attendance and the ones who watched on television didn’t turn out or tune in to watch him lose.
No matter the word you choose to define the exhibition, I would describe it somewhere between demeaning and deplorable. Demeaning could be a little harsh for 2013 but digging further into the context of such exhibitions, you’ll find a correlation between race and poverty that are somewhat in-lined with today’s track and field athletes.
James Cleveland Owens, better known as Jesse, is arguably the greatest Olympian of all-time — at least from the standpoint of track and field. Everyone knows his story of what he accomplished in the 1936 Berlin Games and the impact his feat was to the political climate of American versus the Third Reich. But what gets missed is that after Owens returned to the America he represented in those games, he was reduced to racing horses as “exhibitions” because, well, he still was a black man in the Segregationist U.S.A. and because as he is quoted as saying he needed to eat.
There have been other such exhibitions. Back around 2007, former 200M Olympic gold medalist Shawn Crawford raced both a giraffe and a zebra in the show Man vs. Beast. So, Bolt’s race against the bus is just the latest in the exploitation of the negro man’s physicality for the entertainment of white folks.
But why would Bolt, the most famous human on the planet, still have to lower himself to be a sideshow? It’s for the money-honey. According to forbes.com, Bolt is estimated at $20 million a year. That’s the highest salary any track and field athlete has made — ever — but it still ranked him No. 63 among highest paid athletes.
Track and field is an afterthought for most of the American public except for every fourth year when Olympic bragging rights are at stake. Because of that, money to be made in the sport is tighter than the Allyson Felix/Jeneba Tarmoh Olympic Trials tie. It is also the reason why PEDs are rampant in the sport. The difference between first and second could mean the difference between $2,000 and $10,000.
Wishfully thinking maybe one day a change in the economics of track and field will happen so we can eliminate these exhibitionist stunts. Until then, track and field will continue to be the world’s sideshow.