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How an Alpha Personality in 'Sprint' Creates Winners

How an Alpha Personality in ‘Sprint’ Creates Winners

“Sprint” executive producer Paul Martin likes speed. And sports. But when it comes to amalgamating the two, what he cares about most, as any seasoned storyteller would likely agree with, are the characters.

Characters are the explicit focus of “Sprint,” Netflix’s new docuseries highlighting some of the biggest names in the 100- and 200-meter sprint in professional track and field. “Sprint” features top American talents like Sha’Carri Richardson — who made headlines when she was suspended in 2021 after testing positive for marijuana — and Noah Lyles, the outspoken sprinter who stoked beef with NBA players last summer, British 100- and 200-meter record holder Zharnel Hughes, Jamaican legends Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Shericka Jackson, and more. Each of these athletes is in contention for a place on the podium — hopefully wearing a gold medal — at the upcoming summer Olympic Games in Paris.

Martin is no stranger to the world of athletics. An avid sports fan, he has helped produce various sports-centric Netflix documentaries, including “Formula 1: Drive to Survive,” “Break Point,” “Full Swing” and “Tour de France: Unchained.” Unlike some of those projects, however, “Sprint” was partially born out of the desire to construct a narrative modeled around brevity. At the elite level for both men and women, short sprints like the 100 and 200 rarely exceed more than 10 to 20 seconds per race.

Perhaps equally as difficult as defining the scope of a short-lived competition through film is capturing the “emotional journey” that preceded it, as Martin tells during a recent interview. For many of these top-tier talents, it’s not merely their abilities and efforts alone that see them garnering gold medals.

As “Sprint” shows, peripheral yet integral characters like family and friends allow the viewer to “live the event” and the athletes’ journey through their eyes. “I think it’s really important to establish those relationships and those characters within the context of the series so that you can see that the emotional states don’t just lie with the individual,” Martin said. “They lie with the bigger team and they lie with the mom, the parent, the brother, whatever it is.”

In a conversation about curating the “Sprint” cast, the importance of being a “main character” in track and field, and the charm of the sport’s enduring element of surprise, Martin elaborated on the show’s creation.

“I was an athletics fan for a long time. And I loved it. I always loved the variety of events from track and field and the multi-discipline events and everything. I just genuinely was an athletics fan. When we looked at the world of athletics as a whole — whether it’s Formula One, whether it’s golf, whether it’s tennis, all the shows that we’ve done — we always look from a kind of a character and story narrative perspective.”

But I also think that we’ve made a show, Formula One, that is about speed. That’s a race that takes place over two and a half hours. And I think there was just something that excited us [about sprinting]; that idea of we’re making about a sport, but it’s a sport that lasts less than 10 seconds for the 100 meters and less than 20 seconds for the 200 meters. For “Drive to Survive,” if we ever find ourselves in need of juicing up an episode, you can cut to a great crash or you can cut to five minutes of amazing driving. And we didn’t have that safety net here. And I think that appealed to us of trying to tell the story of a sport that was only 10 seconds long.

ShaCarri Richardson in “Sprint” (Netflix)

In Episode 5, it’s really between Sha’Carri Richardson’s semifinal and final. And in the aftermath of her winning the gold, it was just incredible? If you’ve seen the series already or you remember that event, you know she ends up going through to the final as one of the two fastest losers, which means she’s in lane nine. And there are only 20 minutes between the semifinal and the final when she goes back to the warm-up track and she meets Dennis [Mitchell], her coach.

And they’re both incredibly interesting but complicated characters. Dennis and Sha’Carri — they’re both characters that people have very strong opinions about, for good and for bad. But I think in that moment, the way that Dennis talks to her between the events . . . and it’s this great moment of him holding her hands as they walk from the warm-up track to send her out to the final. And he stops and they hug and he whispers something to her like, “Listen, I’m going to ask you this question and I want you to tell me the answer. I just want you to go out there and show me.” And that question is, “Who’s the fastest?”

And then she goes out there and she just produces the most extraordinary performance to win the gold medal. And then in the aftermath, because he’s separated from her, he’s on the phone with his wife. The whole thing is, it’s just what sports are all about. Here are two people that have been criticized and maligned, all the stuff that’s been written about Sha’Carri and even Dennis. And here you just see it for that moment of winning gold medals. You just see how it affects them on a human level. I think it’s just incredibly emotional, incredibly powerful. For me, it just epitomizes everything that’s wonderful about every sport, but certainly about that sport. And I never tire of watching it. It just really makes me emotional every time I see it because I think you really understand the hard work that each of them have put in to get into that moment and being able to execute and get what they dreamed of, which is incredible.

Those moments are just incredible to witness. And I think for our crew, it was that she is an incredibly complicated individual to carry. And still, though we’ve made this series about her — I wouldn’t claim to have any grasp on who she really is and what really drives her.

Is different from Noah. He’s a bit of a showman, very confident. At one point, he says, “If you don’t have main character energy, track and field ain’t for you.” It’s probably true. If you look at the history of 100 meters, there’s not too many kind of shrinking violets that win that event. Carl Lewis was a character. Britain’s own Linford Christie was a big personality, a big character, right through to Donovan Mitchell. And again, to why focused on those sprint events, because they are the biggest characters.

Noah Lyles in “Sprint” (Netflix)

Family influences can provide essential emotional context. Noah, for example, has a close bond with his mom, Keisha Caine Bishop, a former NCAA track athlete. On the importance of these segments, Martin notes the value of showing the emotional journey through the lens of loved ones. “I think it’s really important to establish those relationships and those characters within the context of the series so that you can see that the emotional states don’t just lie with the individual,” Martin explained.

Addressing the intense rivalry between U.S. and Jamaican sprinters, Martin talked about cultural differences. In Jamaica, elite sprinters are almost like celebrities, whereas in the U.S., track and field doesn’t hold the same spotlight compared to other major sports. “In Jamaica, if you don’t win the gold, they’re really not interested in silver,” Martin said, echoing Michael Johnson’s commentary. While track and field in the U.S. competes with bigger sports, the 100 meters event retains its historic and symbolic importance.

Industry legends like Usain Bolt, Allyson Felix, and Michael Johnson provide context and insight into the world of elite professional sprinting, enhancing the narrative with their gravitas. Their involvement helps create a comprehensive look into the trials and triumphs of sprint legends. “Usain was great to have onboard. Michael Johnson and Allyson Felix brought another level, and Ato Boldon was a big personality who deeply cares about athletes and pushing the sport forward,” Martin shared.

The prospect of a second season of “Sprint” following the same athletes to Paris for the upcoming Olympics is something to look forward to. Martin is intrigued by the potential storylines that could emerge, whether Noah can solidify his legacy or how Sha’Carri’s journey unfolds. “At the heart of these shows is the sport, which will consistently throw up surprise after surprise and drama after drama,” Martin concluded.

“Sprint” is currently streaming on Netflix.

Source: Salon