Michael Johnson called on athletics to take a leaf out of the Professional Triathletes Organisation's book to help its stars convey their stories and make the sport a more attractive commodity.
Sprinting icon Johnson is the former 200m and 400m world record holder but is now educating himself in long-distance swim bike run and was a PTO ambassador at the recent US Open in his hometown of Dallas.
The athlete-owned PTO, founded in 2020, is aiming to transform triathlon by professionalising the longer-than-Olympic distance arm of the sport and revolutionising coverage having signed Warner Bros Discovery as global broadcaster.
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And Johnson believes his sport could benefit from a similarly assertive and forward-thinking approach to marketing athletics rather than leaving things entirely down to the individuals involved.
The 55-year-old explained: "Some athletes get that they need to be an entertainer to get fans into the sport.
"But I think we need to be careful when it comes to track and field as this sport tends to put the onus completely on the athletes, so they relieve themselves of any responsibility with that.
"That is why I have a great deal of respect for the PTO and these triathletes because there is a true partnership and the athletes are doing their part with great performances and on social media but also with help to boost that as they can't do it by themselves."
BBC pundit Johnson was pleased to see British 400m star Matthew Hudson-Smith win bronze at the World Championships this summer, where he also candidly revealed he had previously attempted to take his own life amid injury hell and being stuck in the US away from family during lockdown.
While admitting it is a personal choice to share such intimate information, Johnson concedes that it does wonders for making sportspeople more relatable and compared Hudson-Smith to the PTO's Lionel Sanders, the 21st-place finisher in Dallas, who famously beat addiction and insists triathlon saved his life.
Johnson explained: "It does a great deal of good to see athletes who have had those struggles go on to have success at the highest level, which gives other people hope.
"But it also makes these great athletes human, which I think is great for bringing more fans into a sport.
"That's a very personal story, it's Matt's choice whether he chooses to share it or not but he did it.
"Those athletes who decide to share their stories like Matt and Lionel, who has spoken about how triathlon has vanquished some of the demons in his life, are really important for sports because people sitting at home can identify with that and have been in that same situation.
"It was good to see Matt share his story but even better to see him have so much success after what he's been through personally and what he revealed about his mental struggle, but also just on the track he has struggled with injuries as well."
Johnson has been vocal about athletics' over-emphasis on times and records but wants to see more than just the stories behind the athletes explored having experienced the well-rounded approach of the PTO in person.
The four-time Olympic champion wants the story behind competitive races pushed to the more casual fan instead of luring supporters to meets merely to catch a glimpse of the sport's most prominent stars.
He explained: "We tend to look for the Usain Bolt analogy – 'come watch this, he's the most amazing athlete and you get a chance to see him.'
"That's not a competitive story. People love heroes and stars, yes, but what will sustain you as a sport is the competition.
"When we talk about the story it's the competitive story as well as the athletes' personal story."
Michael Johnson was a special guest of the Professional Triathletes Organisation at the PTO US Open in Dallas. The PTO is a new sports body owned by the athletes and seeking to take the sport of triathlon to the next level. For more information, visit www.protriathletes.org
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