Some­thing to cheer for

Sprinter De Grasse’s all-ages ap­peal and un­der­dog stature have Cana­di­ans talk­ing track once again

The Hamilton Spectator - - SPORTS - LORI EW­ING

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.

DAR­RYL DYCK, THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

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.

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