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The Inside Story of Australia's Surprise Summer Sporting Sensation

It's like the Big Bash, but Nitro Athletics is the 'Big Dash'.

11/02/2017 12:16 PM AEDT | Updated 11/02/2017 1:21 PM AEDT
THEO KARANIKOS via Getty Images
Yeah, ya got me. Guilty of providing awesome entertainment.

The surprise sporting hit of the summer was just four months in the making. We're talking about Nitro Athletics -- the three-pronged athletics series which started last Saturday night and which finishes this Saturday night.

Want to know what you've been missing? Who better to ask than the President of the International Association of Athletics Federations, Sebastian Coe, a dual Olympic gold medallist in the 1500 and above all, a track and field fan.

"I saw engagement, I saw fun and laughter and that's what the sport has been missing for a long time," Coe said after attending the Thursday night meet this week.

High praise indeed. This is the story of how Nitro Athletics happened.

Hamish Blair / Reuters
He was in the last event on the first night. But do you know what? It wasn't all about him. Everyone was having such a good time by then, his relay sprint was almost an afterthought.

First, a little background...

Here's a hard truth about athletics. It matters to Australians at the Olympics, because we all care about the medal table, because world records are on the line, and because it all just seems so big and important.

The rest of the time? Well, we Aussies don't tend to follow track and field, let alone attend meets. Athletics is a sport that just gets swamped by cricket, football and the rest of it. It's a similar story in other countries.

Then along came Nitro Athletics.

If you've not yet watched it, here's what you've missed.

In a word, fun. Nitro Athletics is athletics as you've never seen it. Sure, it's people running and jumping and throwing. But that's pretty much where the similarity ends.

Getty Images
It's all about getting close to the fans. Oh, and Michelle Jenneke even won her hurdles race, just to keep everyone super happy.

It's the athletics equivalent of cricket's Big Bash, with all kinds of wacky rule and format variations.

Some examples:

  • There are relays featuring men and women running together.
  • There are elimination races (borrowed from track cycling) where the slowest runner is cut each lap.
  • There are throwing events where points are accrued for accuracy as well as distance.
  • The whole event is on a team versus team basis where each event accrues points in an ongoing tally.
  • Competitors can run alongside the track to encourage their teammates.

But above all, the key difference is the vibe. Commentators are in the faces of athletes straight after they compete, and often in the middle of competition (in the case of field events). The whole point is to be fan-friendly and TV viewer-friendly.

Jack Thomas via Getty Images
This is Australian pole vaulter Kurtis Marschall being interviewed by Steve Hooker, who knows a thing or two about pole vault and whose shirt was UNTUCKED even though the pic doesn't quite show it.

So how did it happen?

Much credit must go to Athletics Australia President Mark Arbib. He only came on board a year or so ago, but as he told The Huffington Post Australia, he knew that the sport of athletics had to get itself into people's consciousness when the Olympics weren't on.

"To get athletics into the mainstream again, there had to be a game changer. One of our board members was involved in the BBL, and our sport is in many ways suited to that sort of format.

"Having watched BBL extensively I just thought 'why can't this be replicated in athletics'? John Steffensen [an Olympic silver medallist from the 400m relay in Athens and a Nitro Athletics commentator] and I met in Melbourne and had a meeting of the minds.

"He is the public face of Nitro Athletics and he represents everything that we want call the 'Nitro Attitude'. We want to be interesting, exciting, fresh and fun. The thing I like is how kids were lined up getting autographs from athletes, from para-athletes, everyone. We worked out pretty quickly that you want athletes engaging with the crowd."

THEO KARANIKOS via Getty Images
Steffensen interviews Usain Bolt's armpit. Because Nitro Athletics.

Arbib also worked out that teams were the secret to crowd engagement during the actual events. Nitro has a six team format featuring Australia, four other countries, and the "Bolt All-Stars" -- who include the man himself plus assorted hand-picks.

"The short form format is such a sweet spot," Arbib says. "It's a meet that starts at 6 pm and finishes at 9 pm, and it has the atmosphere of a school athletics carnival where everyone is cheering for their house. Records are great, but who cares when it's about your team winning?"

The oops moment

On the final event of night two, Australia had a shonky baton change where our runner ran way past the line. It should have been an instant disqualification. Yet for a while afterwards, Australia retained its points on the official table.

Scott Barbour via Getty Images
Oops

If you didn't know better, you'd swear someone was thinking "hey, this thing is all fun, maybe if we let it go, the Australian team will be on top on points going into the last night -- and that will be great for ratings".

And if you didn't know better, you'd swear someone tapped that someone on the shoulder and said "there's a fine line between a carnival atmosphere and having no rules whatsoever. At some point, we have to remain pure, or at least more pure than one of those wacky TV game shows like Wipeout".

Whatever happened, sense prevailed. Australia lost its points. And it was a reminder to Nitro organisers that sport is still sport, even when it's dressed up in colourful clothes.

The Bolt factor

AFP/Getty Images
Bolt loves Melbourne, Melbourne, loves Bolt

Dave Culbert runs the Melbourne-based sports marketing agency Jump Media. He's also an Olympian and athletics commentator, and has been shadowing Usain Bolt these past couple of weeks.

"He's been a dream," Culbert says. "If it's on his schedule, he is 100 percent reliable and always goes above and beyond. His interaction with fans is outrageous. He is on the Federer level."

Bolt is a stakeholder in Nitro Athletics, so he's got every interest in seeing it succeed. But as anyone who's watched the Jamaican knows, he just loves a good time.

"He is tired of going to a meet and winning races but having people disappointed that he didn't break a record," Culbert says. "He loves the fact that he's here [running relays] and not one person has said 'he's not running 100'."

On and off the track, Bolt has been a terrific presence at Nitro.

"He took it to a new place running along the side of the track and that sort of stuff," Culbert says. "There was a hope [before Nitro started] that would happen but it was not scripted."

So what next?

More Nitro. Two more years in Melbourne until the current contract runs out, a possible stint in Sydney, and then?

VALERY HACHE via Getty Images
When Seb Coe does his quizzical look, you know you're on a winner.

"Anything's possible," says Athletics Australia President Mark Arbib. "It's early days in some areas and we want to improve it. It's not something you want to over-orchestrate because spontaneity is pretty important, but there are some flat spots we can improve, especially the field events.

"What's really amazed us is the global interest. The potential is there globally to build a business out of this. But so far, so good."

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