Racers Track Club Head Coach Glen Mills says the view that some athletes in track and field are arrogant for freely speaking their minds is misguided.
Mills, who was a recent guest at the Jamaica Observer's Monday Exchange, says that track and field is held to a different standard than other sports in which well-paid athletes are allowed to develop charismatic personas through engaging rivals in banter.
While Mills' former athlete Usain Bolt, now retired, was widely loved for the charisma he brought to the sport, there are others who are not received similarly because of their perceived excessive self-confidence, especially in victory.
Forbes.com lists Conor McGregor as one of the highest-earning athletes of all time. The Irish mixed martial artist made an estimated US$43 million (just over $6.5 billion) in 2022.
McGregor is known for taunting his opponents in press conferences and at weigh-ins and also for obscene language displayed on his clothing and even when addressing the media. But this demeanour has helped him to garner 46.4 million followers on Instagram and just under 10 million on Twitter.
American sprinter Sha'Carri Richardson is another controversial figure. Although a drug ban prevented her debut at a major international meet at the Tokyo Olympics nearly two years ago, her brash tweets and Instagram posts feuding with various athletes, including Jamaicans, have earned her close to 500,000 followers on Twitter and 2.3 million on Instagram, a considerable distance behind McGregor.
Mills, who has been critical of athletics for being too "amateurish", as he describes it, in its ideals, says this is the reason for the different public reception of these athletes.
"The reason they say they're arrogant is because it's an amateur sport," he said. "The Olympics teaches you that you do it for honour and glory and if you're arrogant, you ain't doing it for honour.
"Boxing's popularity was at its highest when Muhammad Ali was talking a lot about his rivals."
Mills sees other sports such as basketball, association football, and American football as significantly more lucrative than track and field, and says this allows the stars of those sports more freedom to do or say as they please without similar judgement.
"In basketball and football, they don't play for honour and glory, they play for the money," he said. "If you're collecting US$500 million or however much and start talking, everybody listens, even if it's foolishness. They see the money. You need that promotion in the sport. It's good for the sport, but most people don't talk because you're required to be ambassadors."
Racers sprinter Zharnell Hughes agrees with his coach.
"I totally agree with it, I like it," Hughes said. "It brings rivalry, it brings attention. It's just like boxing. When the guys go out there and do that chatter before the match, it brings excitement."
But Mills says athletics missed an opportunity to cash in on Bolt's personality.
"Track and field had one of the greatest sportsmen, at the time, across the world," Mills said of Bolt. "Bolt's popularity and charisma, in the modern era, so far, could rival anybody in any sport. Even the other sports keep referring to him. Even on commentary, you'll hear them say things like 'Bolt-like speed', and track and field got nothing out of Bolt's fame. The money that Bolt got from track and field is nothing compared to a quarterback who gets that for the year."
For this reason, Mills believes athletics needs an overhaul in its structure of events and how it is packed for viewership.
"It shows you how track and field is. The World Championship, for example, runs over 10 days. That's rubbish," he said. "It's a three-day meet, at most, four. Who's going to watch an event for so long in track and field? Football is different because every match is exciting. But when you run heats and quarter-finals and all that nonsense, nobody's gonna watch that. You can't have a World Championship and you have nine heats in the 100m, that's rubbish! All you need is the semi-final and the final round. It's a participation thing. People running 12 and 11 seconds in the [preliminary round], that's rubbish."
Mills will have the chance to lead by example this weekend when the Racers Grand Prix takes place at the National Stadium. The three-hour meet starts at 6:30 pm and will feature many of track and field's biggest names, including Jamaica's own women's 200m world champion Shericka Jackson, her men's equivalent Noah Lyles of the United States of America (USA), 110m hurdles Olympic Champion Hansle Parchment, the 100m hurdles world champion, and world record holder Tobi Amusan of Nigeria, former 400m hurdles world record holder Dalilah Muhammad, and 400m world record holder Wayde van Niekerk of South Africa.
Hughes will face Lyles in the men's 200m, while his Racers clubmate Oblique Seville, a 100m finalist at the World Athletics Championships last year, will feature in that event against 2019 world champion Christian Coleman of the USA.