The promise: “Athletics will be revolutionised.”
Created by Athletics Australia, Nitro presents a new style of team competition, mixing up track & field events including races such as mixed medley relays and seeded para-sprints. It’s all wrapped up with a very matey-feeling bow, with irksome live commentary from on the track played not only to TV-viewers, but also those in the stadium.
Looking at the schedule, I could not be more intrigued. Though I’m not a fan of the categories (is javelin not a power event?) I looked forward to an afternoon of such varied events.
I enjoy the non-traditional distances, which means there’s a greater mix of styles and tactics in the race. I had similar thoughts about last year’s Great City Games. In the Newcastle edition, the headline act was a 500m road race- with a supposed head-to-head between 400m specialist Martin Rooney, and 800m specialist, David Rudisha. Rooney strode out with confidence in the first 250m, but after 30 seconds seemed to stall, and lost it in the last 100m with both Rudisha and Mark English overtaking him and pulling away to first & second places respectively.
Back to Nitro in Melbourne, where the races began. The 6 teams are: Australia, New Zealand, China, Japan, England (not team GB- though I’m sure they pine for Laura Muir in the 3 minute challenge & elimination mile) and “Bolt’s All-Stars”- curiously made up not of athletes only from the 191 countries without a team in Nitro- but also those pilfered from the 5 competing nations.
As Australia strode to victory in the first event, the mixed medley relay, one couldn’t help but feel that they have the massive advantage of being the home team. England’s team, led by Christine Ohuruogu, had barely another household name in it; seeming to use the new competition as experience for some less seasoned athletes. This meant some slightly odd draws, including 400m runner Hannah Williams sprinting in the 60m. I was, however, pleased to see Jo Blair compete in javelin. I had competed against her in my first javelin competition, which was probably the second time I had picked up the implement. Jo was disappointed to get just 45m. I was delighted to get 11m.
Live commentary was constant and dreadful. Presenters wandered freely on the track, repeatedly asking athletes about the ‘trash talk’ that had been going on. On Jarrion Lawson’s long jump, the presenters talked about his failure to win gold in Rio, as he stood preparing on the runway. He was clearly distracted by the commentary run through the loudspeakers, and signalled for it to stop. His gesture was ignored, and the commentator called to the crowd- “do we want to see 8m?” He continues to prepare. “25 seconds to go- he needs to take off.” He again tried to gather himself. “Wiggle. Wiggle. Wiggle- and launch.” Lawson fouled.
Perhaps the most interesting event was the elimination mile. Similar to elimination races in cycling, at the end of each 400m lap, the last competitor is eliminated. It is fantastic to watch but must be horrendous to run.
I looked eagerly to see what weird and wonderful events next week’s Nitro fixtures (9th & 10th Feb) would hold- and was disappointed to see that the events are almost the same. The para race is 200m instead of 100; there is a 4 x 400m instead of the medley; and the genders change on the field events and hurdles. I understand the desire to have fewer events to keep the pace going for TV- but why not change it up? Where is the hurdle shuttle-relay? 100m sprint with a shot-put at the end?
Nitro Athletics has been developed to increase the global profile of international athletic competitions. In addition to more traditional events, I’m sure it will do- though I certainly hope it won’t replace coverage of regular championships. I can’t help but feel that what I disdain about Nitro- the commentary, the bluster, the spin- is what they feel will attract a new audience to athletics. The irony is- I am a new audience.
I’ll be fascinated to see how Nitro pans out- with its ambition to become a brand of athletics meets which travels the globe to rival the Diamond League, pulling athletics out of the musty and corrupt closet- but I suspect the novelty may be over by this time next week.