With traditional competition shut down by the coronavirus pandemic, athletics has begun experimenting with imaginative and unusual ways to ensure that, somehow, the show goes on. The Olympics and European Championships have been postponed and there no traditional meetings are scheduled until the Diamond League in Monaco on August 14, yet there has been a steady stream of creative initiatives to allow competition.
There have been long-distance pole-vault showdowns and solo races against the clock. Micro meetings are planned and, in a sport built on direct competition, promoters of traditional meetings are looking at ways to stage meaningful one-runner races in arenas where no hands are clapping.
“In this period when nothing is happening, there is no bad idea, apart from taking health risks,” Remy Charpentier, the organiser of the Monaco meeting, said. The postponed London Marathon launched the 2.6 Challenge in which participants attempted solo events based on that number.
Some sat in cornflakes, Mo Farah swung from a climbing frame but others ran or rolled. Three of the world’s leading pole vaulters managed to compete while staying at home with the Ultimate Garden Challenge on May 3 as Swede Armand ‘Mondo’ Duplantis, the world record holder, took on Frenchman Renaud Lavillenie, and two-time US world champion Sam Kendricks.
Watched, World Athletics estimated, by more than a million people worldwide, Duplantis, jumping in his back garden in his native Louisiana and Lavillenie, in Clermont-Ferrand, both cleared a bar set at 5 metres 36 times in 30 minutes while Kendricks, in Mississippi, managed 26. “It’s already huge even to be able to do exhibitions again,” Lavillenie said, adding that he was surprised to have felt “a little bit of adrenaline” with this ersatz competition. The format was duplicated by three of the world’s top women vaulters jumping at their training grounds with Greek Olympic champion Ekaterini Stefanidi beating American Katie Nageotte and Canadian Alysha Newman.
As the lockdown eases in some parts of Europe, ‘Flight Night’ involving four German pole vaulters, is planned at a drive-in cinema in Dusseldorf on June 12 while six micro-meetings have been scheduled in the Czech Republic.
Those will start in Kladno on June 1 with three events — women’s javelin, men’s shot put and men’s 300m — on the announced schedule. In addition to “private” initiatives, the big meetings are looking for a way to keep the show going, which is a problem in events where athletes compete at the same time. The Oslo Diamond League event, on June 11, has been renamed “the Impossible Games” and will operate “in full observation of Norway’s coronavirus regulations and social distancing rules.”
The hour-long made-for-TV event will again feature Duplantis who will be at the Bislett stadium as will Norwegian Sondre Guttormsen while Lavillenie will vault in his French garden. Two Norwegians will make solo attempts at records in little-run distances.
Double 400m hurdles world champion Karsten Warholm will try to break the world 300m hurdles mark and Karoline Bjerkeli Grovdal attempt a 3,000m record with her pace set by a lights embedded in the side of the track. There is also a plan for two hurdlers to race each other over 200m.
Meanwhile, Monaco is hoping to run a normal event. “We hope to stay with a traditional meeting, we still have three months left,” said Charpentier. “You don’t have to be innovative at all costs but you have to do what works for you. If 22 players can play football in the Bundesliga, then 10 runners should be able to compete together.”
The former decathlete Alain Blondel, who was in charge of the cancelled Rabat meet, sees the crisis as an athletics laboratory “to build the athletics of 2030.” “These innovations aren’t imitation athletics, you shouldn’t see it as a classic competition, it’s closer to a TV show based on an athletic performance,” he said. “We’re wondering what idea we can come up with that gives a bit of life.”
Discus thrower Jade Lally of Britain trains session in Loughborough, Britain yesterday. (Reuters)