Here’s a pet peeve: People complaining about the popularity of track and field.
So someone’s kick in a 1,500 meter race in some obscure European country didn’t make ESPN’s Top 10. Big whoop. The New York Times didn’t name the winner of the NYC Marathon and just referred to them as “runner” or “Kenyan.” I do not care. Did you have a nice time watching those things with your own eyes? Did you have a nice time talking about those things with your friends after they were over? Then you are a winner. The comments that accompany these sorts of arguments are generally of the “How do we make track and field more popular” variety. I also find these unproductive. Because again, we’re all having a nice time watching aren’t we?
The only reason I bring this up is that I am about to contradict myself and I’d hate for you to think I am one of those nerds that constantly talks about THE STATE OF OUR SPORT.
Now that that’s out of the way:
Abderrahman Samba is the 2018 Athlete of the Year. Why? Because of him–and subsequently his event, the 400 meter hurdles– track and field have something halfway marketable that isn’t a billion dollar Nike production. What is that something? INTRIGUE RIVALRY DRAMA.
Until last season, the 23-year old Qatari athlete was a relative unknown. But, very suddenly, we had a kid no one had ever heard of rubbing elbows with far more experienced athletes at the 2017 World Championships in London. He got 7th. Ho hum.
But 2018 is where things get INTRIGUING. Through the first six Diamond League meetings for the 400m hurdles, Samba broke the Diamond League Record four times, set five Meet Records and re-upped the World Lead three times. Hidden between those tidbits is the fact that he ran the 2nd fastest 400-meter hurdle of all time in 46.98 becoming only the 2nd man to break 47-seconds in the history of our humble sport. It also marks the fastest anyone has ran since Kevin Young’s 1992 46.78. The list of names he put himself in front of is nothing to shake a stick at: Edwin Moses, Felix Sanchez, Bershawn Jackson, Kerron Clement, to name a few.
Let us be reminded that this was Samba’s 2nd season as a professional runner.
I watched almost all of Samba’s races this past year while producing the Big Meet Pod episodes with my colleague, Stephen Kersh. In the Diamond League Meets that he ran at, he was (nearly) undefeated. But he wasn’t without his challengers. Blog favorite and Norwegian internet meme sensation, Karsten Warholm, went head-to-head against Samba seven times. Of those seven, Warholm lost all but one and finished 2nd place to Samba four times. This made for great television because Warholm not only lost, but most of the time lost on the final stretch of the race as he faded and Samba started to roll. This is how rivalries are born.
This brings us to the drama of it all. In sports, many dramas manifest from UNFINISHED BUSINESS. Samba doesn’t have a world medal to his name, mostly due to the fact that he has only been competing for two years. And in 2018, an off year, the only thing to do as an athlete is win for the sake of winning, and of course, that sweet sweet Diamond League prize money. Samba was well on his way to going undefeated in the Diamond League, having gone 6/6 of the races he ran. If he went on to win the last two, which included the Final, he would have walked out of the 2018 season with $120,000 in prize money. But then that dummy went an hurt his hamstring. He didn’t compete for a month and missed the DL Final in Zurich. This injury probably cost the man close to $60,000 and a whole lot of confidence headed into next years World Championships in his hometown of Doha.
Instead, he now has UNFINISHED BUSINESS. He has become a very dangerous man.
I can hear you saying “But Ryan, who gives a shit?” Good question. The simple answer is YOU. You should give a shit. I’ve been around enough of YOU to know that YOU talk constantly about how unpopular track and field is and what we can do to elevate the sport. The only worth sports have in today’s day and age are their storylines. The good storylines in sports aren’t about high scores or feats of strength. They’re about bitter hatred and rivalry, finishing that unfinished business, and an unlikely star coming onto the scene and flipping the old guard the bird. In Samba, we have all of that.
If that’s not good enough for you, well the consider the fact that if he continues winning, announcers might come up with fun sayings like, “COME ON EVERYBODY DO THAT SAMBA.” And I’ll be damned if that’s taken away from me because enough of you nerds weren’t paying attention to Citius Mag’s Athlete of the Year, Abderrahman Samba.