Time for a re­match

Star sprinter De Grasse has Cana­di­ans watch­ing track and field again

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - SPORTS - BY LORI EW­ING

At the Cana­dian track and field cham­pi­onships in Ot­tawa in early July, star sprinter An­dre De Grasse had just fin­ished a race, and fans were fran­tic for au­to­graphs.

One par­tic­u­larly op­por­tunis­tic dad picked up his young daugh­ter and boosted her by the be­hind up and over the eight­foot chain-link fence that stood be­tween the fans and the war­m­down area to get to De Grasse.

“We had se­cu­rity nicely put her back over the fence. . . You can’t throw your chil­dren onto the com­pe­ti­tion area,” Mathieu Gentes, Ath­let­ics Canada’s chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer, said with a laugh.

“Peo­ple just lose their minds (over De Grasse). It’s amaz­ing.”

Whether it’s the al­most whim­si­cal way in which he raced at the Rio Olympics - who smiles while roar­ing down the track on the sport’s big­gest stage? - his un­abashed ad­mis­sion that he wanted to de­throne Usain Bolt, or his me­te­oric rags to riches rise, the 22-year-old from Markham, Ont., has Cana­di­ans pay­ing at­ten­tion to track and field.

Ath­let­ics Canada is putting the fi­nal touches on a part­ner­ship that will make De Grasse an am­bas­sador of the sport, much like rap­per Drake’s role with the Toronto Rap­tors.

“An­dre has ab­so­lutely tran­scended track,” Gentes said. “He’s got an im­pact that I have never seen a track ath­lete have on kids and adults.”

The young Cana­dian will be in the spot­light start­ing Fri­day at Lon­don Olympic Sta­dium, when he races Bolt for the fi­nal time at the world cham­pi­onships. The Ja­maican su­per­star and 11-time world cham­pion plans to re­tire after­ward. Tick­ets are scarce, with a record-smash­ing 660,000 al­ready sold.

The pres­sure will un­doubt­edly hang thick in the air. The roar from the crowd is sure to be deaf­en­ing. But De Grasse is at his best when the lights are bright­est, prov­ing he was un­flap­pable in win­ning a silver and two bronze at the Rio Olympics. His side­ways grin at Bolt in the 200 semi­fi­nals will go down as one of the Games’ most mem­o­rable mo­ments.

“That’s the in­tan­gi­ble that a cham­pion does have,” said Doug Cle­ment.

The long­time meet di­rec­tor cred­its De Grasse with sell­ing out his Harry Jerome Track Clas­sic in June a month in ad­vance.

“And they were there three hours be­fore he ran lin­ing up just to get in to get a good seat be­cause they weren’t re­served. And it was jammed,” Cle­ment said.

The De Grasse ef­fect was seen at the na­tional cham­pi­onships that drew the big­gest crowds in the event’s history. Peo­ple ar­rived early, pack­ing the grand­stand de­spite pour­ing rain. Ath­let­ics Canada con­ducted a spec­ta­tor sur­vey that sug­gested fans would have hap­pily paid more for re­served seat­ing near the fin­ish line.

“We had peo­ple that were camp­ing out two to three hours be­fore he ran so that they had their spot,” Gentes said. “Peo­ple wrote (on the sur­vey) ‘Charge me more, I don’t care. We just want to have our spot.’

“And we had a lot of peo­ple com­ment that this was their first track and field ex­pe­ri­ence. And guess who pulled them in?”

After rac­ing to bronze in the 100 at the 2015 world cham­pi­onships, De Grasse turned pro, sign­ing deal with Puma worth US$11.25 mil­lion plus bonuses, the rich­est first en­dorse­ment deal ever for a track ath­lete.

He also has spon­sor­ship deals with Price­wa­ter­house­Coop­ers, Pizza Pizza and Ga­torade. He shares a Ga­torade bill­board sev­eral storeys tall in Toronto’s Yonge-Dun­das Square with Rap­tors all-star De­Mar DeRozan, Blue Jays pitcher Roberto Osuna and women’s hockey star Marie-Philip Poulin.

De Grasse will open the world cham­pi­onships with the 100me­tre heats on Fri­day. The fi­nal is Satur­day.

CP PHOTO

Canada’s An­dre De Grasse, left, and Ja­maica’s Usain Bolt share a laugh be­fore they cross the fin­ish line as they set the two fastest times in the 200-me­tre semi­fi­nals at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Wed­nes­day Aug. 17, 2016.

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