The announcement of this race, a 100 meters in the Gaborone GP in Botswana, has created a social outcry. Deji Ogeyingbo wrote this piece on why rivalries are key, and if we want the sport to grow, we need to embrace rivalries. 

Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce vs. Sha’Carri Richardson: Why the Chaos?

When world athletics dropped a post on its social media platforms about the potential matchup between Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Sha’Carri Richardson over the 100m at the Gaborone Grand Prix on April 29th, it caused a bit of a ripple in the track world, it riled up different sets of fans and supporters of both sprinters. It immediately brought up the age-old question: What is the ideal way to promote an event without making people feel disgruntled- or in this case, disrespected, as most Jamaican fans have come to tag it?

A day later, the post was taken down after world athletics clarified there was a mix-up as Richardson, who was a late entry into the event, will be competing in the 200m instead of the 100m in which Fraser-Pryce was billed to compete in. Still, it didn’t take away the effect of what met the initial post, and the overall implication can only mean that athletics is different compared to other professional sports that have seen astronomical growth in fanbase and acceptance across the world.

Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, photo by Diamond League AG

In the last couple of years, there has been a case for athletes falling behind in terms of popularity despite it being one of the most inclusive sports. It is the most followed sport in the Olympics, too. But outside the sphere of the five rings, it struggles to keep non-followers of the sports captivated mainly because it has refused to evolve and be innovative.

Some of the biggest reasons the likes of Football (Soccer), Basketball, Tennis, and Formula 1 are often talked about amongst fans is the governing body keeps on fueling conversations through rivalries. And it comes in various shapes and forms. It can be artificial or real, staged or close, it doesn’t matter, really. The end goal is to get people talking and eventually watching.

So, when the Fraser-Pryce and Richardson’s head-to-head came to the fore, it felt strange that hardcore fans of the sport taunted world athletics to take the post down. To be fair, they were mostly Jamaicans. Understandably, the Island nation is very much entrenched in the sport. Crucially, they revere their stars.

But is that enough reason for them to feel disgruntled? Richardson might not have accomplished one-tenth of what Fraser-Pryce has in her career; she, however, is no spring chicken when it comes to sprinting. Her being the seventh-fastest runner of all time with her 10.72s highlights how precocious she is. What is lacking, though, is the consistency to match up to the hype and buzz she brings to the sport.

Granted, making a world-class athlete combines factors ranging from consistently churning out results to winning laurels at major championships. However, the marketability side that Richardson brings to athletics makes her such a promoter’s dream. Her story and how she ties it to the sport make her unique.

Sha’Carri Richardson, USATF Outdoor Track and Field, Championships held at Hayward Field, University of Oregon, June 23-26, 2022, photo by Kevin Morris

Some say there is a huge chance that this race (which will not happen again) was going to be a mismatch. Who says? Their head-to-head stands at three-three. All it takes is for Richardson to match up her hype with consistency. But the mere fact we are having this conversation is all meets promoters’ needs to get their market to a bigger audience.

Some of the biggest fan conversations that create a buzz in professional sports are rivalries, predictions, contracts, and style. On the other hand, athletics focuses a lot on records, times, and winning. It is not to say the latter is entirely bad, but the downside is that it keeps the conversation within the realm of just followers of the sport.

400m great, Michael Johnson falls on the other side of the divide as he feels strongly the sport has fallen behind for over a decade, and the one chance it had to put itself put there by being innovative, fans got angry. “But who called it a rivalry? You’re right, it’s not.  It’s a race featuring two athletes with a history between them. A matchup between two athletes with large, mostly opposing fan followings”.

Fans say we need more personalities, more head to head matchups. We also need more drama. @WorldAthletics posts the tweet below and fans are outraged…about who belongs on a poster! So they’ve now deleted the tweet.

— Michael Johnson (@MJGold) March 28, 2023

Johnson said this in response to a fan saying the Fraser-Pryce vs. Richardson matchup is the athletics equivalent of saying Anna Kournikova and Steffi Graf were rivals in tennis just because they competed in the same sport.

Then just say “my girl SAFP bout to spank that ass like she stole something” but don’t say let’s not promote this, let’s ignore this matchup, the history, and her shit talking a whole country. I say don’t ignore that. It’s real. WWE is fake.

— Michael Johnson (@MJGold) March 28, 2023

The casual follower of sport most often say Sports rivalries aren’t real. Aside from wins and losses, there is nothing behind them, and those wins and losses don’t matter any more than any other win or loss. Some of the best movies to date are the ones that have many twists and turns. Movie directors try not to miss out on any chance that will keep their audience glued. Fans love it, too. Why not athletics fans?

But who called it a rivalry? You’re right, it’s not. It’s a race featuring two athletes with history between them. A matchup between two athletes with large mostly opposing fan followings.

— Michael Johnson (@MJGold) March 28, 2023