Something to cheer for
Sprinter De Grasse’s all-ages appeal and underdog stature have Canadians talking track once again
At the Canadian track and field championships in Ottawa in 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 3.5-metre chain-link fence that stood between the fans and the warm-down 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 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 a deal with Puma worth $11.25 million US 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.
In their 2017 list of The World’s 50 Most Marketable athletes, SportPro Media magazine slotted De Grasse in at No. 23, two spots ahead of Formula 1 driver Lewis Hamilton, and 13 spots better than enigmatic NBA star Russell Westbrook.
Canadian tennis players Milos Raonic and Eugenie Bouchard occupied Nos. 31 and 47, respectively. Canadian golfer Brooke Henderson was 32nd. Edmonton Oilers star Connor McDavid, at 15, was the only Canadian ahead of De Grasse. Boxer Anthony Joshua and NBA star Steph Curry were Nos. 1 and 2.
He’s arguably Canada’s biggest track and field star since Donovan Bailey. Or biggest, period.
“I was obviously around when Donovan was running too, and I would say the appeal that Donovan had wasn’t anywhere near the appeal that Andre has,” said De Grasse’s coach Stuart McMillan. “Especially with kids. Maybe that was because Donovan was a little bit older, in 1996 (when Bailey won gold at the Atlanta Olympics) he was already 28.”
His appeal is pretty simple, McMillan said of De Grasse. Kids can relate to him.
“Andre is so young, and the millennial generation, there’s very little difference between a 22-year-old and a 15-year-old. It obviously doesn’t hurt that he’s a goodlooking guy who’s into stuff that your typical 15-year-old is into, whether it’s music or video games. The typical kid couldn’t relate to Donovan because he was driving a Porsche and had a job before he ran track.
“Andre’s story is this kid out of nowhere, walks onto the track in his basketball shorts, runs fast and the next day he’s famous.”
It’s too early to tell, Gentes said, whether De Grasse’s popularity has translated into a bump in club registrations. Any effect from the Rio Olympics, he said, wouldn’t be measurable for another year.
De Grasse will open the world championships with the 100-metre heats on Friday.
The final is Saturday.
Andre De Grasse will be in the spotlight starting Friday at London Olympic Stadium, when he races Usain Bolt for the final time at the world championships.