By Ian Chadband
SHANGHAI (Reuters) - Head-to-head rivalries featuring the world's leading athletes are the best way forward for the beleaguered sport of track and field, according to Olympic 400 meters champion Kirani James.
The Grenadian 22-year-old puts his beliefs into action by never shying away from battle with his main rival for one-lap supremacy, American world champion LaShawn Merritt.
On Sunday, the pair will meet for the 14th time over the distance at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Shanghai, with James adamant that building up such rivalries is key for a sport whose popularity has taken such a hit from doping scandals and ineffective promotion.
The issue has been highlighted again with the likelihood that Justin Gatlin, currently the world number one sprinter, and Usain Bolt, the great Olympic and world champion, are unlikely to race all season until the world championships in Beijing in August.
"Some athletes have different circumstances and their own reasons why they don't compete in certain meetings and that's up to them, but I think head-to-head rivalries bring a lot more excitement to the sport," James told Reuters on Friday.
"For me, when I compete, I try to put on a good performance for the fans, just make it exciting and not focus on whether I’m going to win or lose. Once you do that, everyone wins because the sport wins."
Having beaten Merritt eight times and lost five, he added: "We just want to compete. He (Merritt) says it and I say it. We just want to make it exciting for the fans and once we do that, everything's all right."
Organizers of the Diamond League, the sport’s major season-long showpiece, have taken on board this need to promote individual rivalries.
They opened up in Doha on Friday with a series of spectacular competitions, including the best triple jump duel in history between Cuba's victorious Pedro Pablo Pichardo (18.06 meters) and American Christian Taylor (18.04m).
Shanghai hopes to follow suit on Sunday, with excellent head-to-heads between the world's two top high jumpers, Bohdan Bondarenko and Mutaz Essa Barshim, who have Javier Sotomayor’s world record as a target this summer, and a long jump featuring Olympic champion Greg Rutherford, world champion Aleksandr Menkov and world number one Jeff Henderson.
With other major attractions including a sprint hurdles showdown between Olympic champion Aries Merritt and world champion David Oliver on the program, James believes athletics still has the sort of cast lists to ensure a revival for a wounded sport.
"There's a lot of great athletes out there and events like mine, like the men's high jump and both men and women's hurdles that are really competitive," said James.
"I think somewhere, something has gone wrong in the marketing of the sport but if the right people are in the right positions, I still think the sky's the limit for track and field."
(Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)