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“These athletes should be more famous”: “Sprint” shows how an “alpha personality” 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 Salon during a recent interview.

“You really understand the hard work that each of them have put in.”

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. And I think it’s always an important part of these worlds, you know, to see.”

Check out the full interview with Martin, in which he speaks 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. 

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

You work for Box2Box Films, the team behind Netflix’s “Drive to Survive,” which was about Formula One racing. It seems like you enjoy producing projects about speed! I was a former track athlete in college. I ran NCAA track and field as a middle-distance runner. So I was really excited to see this project come out.

Track and field is a notable sport for many reasons. Why did you choose to make a docuseries about sprinters specifically?

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. When we dialed into the 100 and the 200 meters, there were all the things that excited us. There were great characters on the women’s side of the sport. There were some incredible — some of the greatest athletes to ever do it there. And some new up-and-coming athletes here. So it just ticked all those boxes.

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. 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.

SprintShaCarri Richardson in “Sprint” (Netflix)I love that. In a May episode of the “Move the Ball” podcast, you said that there’s a moment in the series that you felt, “is some of the best emotional scenes we’ve ever filmed.” Now that “Sprint” has premiered, can you talk about which scene that was and why you think it’s particularly emotional and effective?

Yeah. So 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.

Totally. I was actually going to ask something along those lines, regarding Sha’Carri specifically. When she wins the 100 meters at The World Championships in Budapest, it really feels not only like a culmination of her efforts, but the moment when no one can count her out anymore. It affected me emotionally — that moment when she and Dennis embrace after the race and he gets kind of choked up and he reminds her of all she deserves.

After Sha’Carri’s unfortunate suspension in 2021 that led her to not be able to participate in the Tokyo Olympics,  what did it mean to be a part of that moment for her and with her, that 100-meter win where she set that record?

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.

But I think that she was thoroughly deserving of that gold medal and thoroughly deserving of everything that she got. And thoroughly deserving of, like you said, that ability to not have people that don’t know anything about her question her anymore, because I think there was a lot of rubbish written about her and talked about her both before and after what kind of happened to her. And I think she felt that very strongly. I think she went out and she proved everyone wrong. Not that she really cared about proving everyone wrong. I think for her about, it was about doing what she really believed that she could do, which was win gold medals. I think her focus now will very much be on that Olympic gold medal. And I think the good thing is that now she’s probably the favorite for that. And I don’t think people are writing her off. I think it’s conceivable that she could win that gold medal in Paris, which is incredible.

I’m curious to learn more about what the “Sprint” casting process looked like. The series features some incredibly big names in the sport from all over the world — Sha’Carri, Noah Lyles, Shelley Anne Fraser-Pryce, Sherika Jackson, etc. Why did you pick them other than the obvious reasons? Did you get everyone on your wish list and were some of them more challenging to lockdown than others?

“Carl Lewis was a character.”

Yeah, I mean, these shows are always challenging to make because you are dealing with different personalities. Sometimes people are all in from day one. Sometimes it takes a little bit longer to build that kind of relationship. Sometimes halfway through it, you can see that their interest in being part of it has waned, or the story that you thought you were going to tell is maybe going in a different direction.

Someone like Noah is great. He’s a gift. He’s someone that takes his role in athletics very seriously. He sees it as part of his job to try and push athletics as much as he can. And therefore he sees that putting himself out there and putting his personal interest in growing the sport and growing people’s interest in the sport. Other people don’t feel that kind of obligation. They’re very much in their own lane and very much on their own journey. And you have to respect that. 

I would say, Sha’Carri is one of those people, where she’s so focused on where she wants to get to. Sure, she participated in this type of show. But I wouldn’t say she did it with the same enthusiasm that Noah did. But that’s expected. They’re all different and they all have different entry points and they all have different participation. It’s less a casting process and more the characters emerge through the process. We love to spend some time with Noah. We love Sha’Carri, Shelley-Ann, Fred [Kerley]. But you never really know how the storylines and the characters are going to evolve. But these shows just have a way of throwing up characters and storylines in a way that make them unavoidable. It’s like, how could you have not told the Sha’Carri story? How could you have not told Noah’s story?

Did any particular stories from any particular character surprise you especially?

I think Noah surprised me. I don’t think we expected to like Noah as much as we did –

He’s a bit of a showboater. He’s very confident. At one point, he says, “If you don’t have main character energy, track and field ain’t for you.” How do you feel about that sentiment?

I think he’s probably right. I think 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 your first question, is probably the reason that we focused on those sprint events, because we felt that they were the biggest characters. Being that alpha in the room, both on the male and the female side, it’s sort of part of the makeup of a successful sprinter. And I think that for us as producers and as filmmakers is the type of characters that you want to be around. And it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re all — like Fred is a very different personality from Noah. But there’s a line in there, where Fred talks about his history as a college football player. And he’s like, “Oh, yeah, I just love to hit people.” And that’s petrifying. Fred’s a huge guy! I think he’s got that alpha personality. So, yeah, I think it’s just part of that world. And I think Noah’s right. I think if you can’t, if you can’t set foot on that line and match the energy of a Noah Lyles or a Fred Kerley or on the women’s side, a Shelly-Anne Fraser-Pryce or a Sha’Carri, then sprinting probably ain’t for you.

SprintNoah Lyles in “Sprint” (Netflix)Family plays a pretty big role for some of the sprinters in the series.  I really love those moments with Noah’s mom, Keisha Caine Bishop. She’s a former NCAA track athlete. And in Noah’s words, if she wasn’t around, he wouldn’t be a professional athlete. There’s a great scene when they’re at their family home and she’s pulling out all this memorabilia from his childhood: Baby books, medals he won, a pregnancy stick. Why was it important for viewers to see those moments between Noah and his mom, especially since so much of the energy and so much of the focus is what happens on the track and in the training?

What we want to do on these shows is just give people a different perspective from what they see, particularly when they watch the live events. And I think that the family stuff and moms and dads and parents are always a great vehicle. And then also what they can give you. It’s very difficult in the moment to capture the emotional journey of an athlete in that moment. But if you spend time with kind of family, you can set up these proxy characters around them through which you can almost live the event through the eyes of the mom or Dennis the coach, who’s almost like a father figure to kind of Sha’Carri. So I think it’s 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. They lie with the bigger team and they lie with the mom, the parent, the brother, whatever it is. And I think it’s always an important part of these worlds to see.

“Americans don’t like people who don’t win.”

I mean, I spoke to my own mom on my way into the office today. I live in L.A., she lives in the U.K. and I was on the phone to her and she was like, “I just watched your ‘Sprint’ show and I loved Noah’s mom! She was great. She was pulling out all the baby photos and stuff like that.” So, you know, if I need to keep my own mom happy, those parts are always very important to these shows [laughs].

“Sprint” focuses heavily on the deep rivalry between the U.S. and Jamaica, the two titans of sprinting. It was interesting to see how, and I certainly knew this already from being in the world of running, but viewers who might not, how in Jamaica elite sprinters are revered almost as celebrities. But in the U.S., that’s not exactly the case. Track and field is certainly not as popular as bigger team sports like football and basketball, for example. How much did you want to show the contrast between how sprinters are publicly perceived and understood in Jamaica versus the U.S.?

I think it was an important part of the the narrative, and it was an important part of establishing the characters and the additional pressures that they’re faced with in Jamaica. Michael Johnson says in his commentary on it, “In Jamaica, if you don’t win the gold, they’re really not interested in silver.” And sprinting has become so synonymous with Jamaica. It gives them a cultural identity above and beyond music and stuff like that. And I think that that’s important for a tiny island like Jamaica.

In the U.S., it is different. Track and field is competing with a lot of other sports. But I think that for me, the 100 meters is such a blue ribbon event in any sport. I think it would be interesting to see if Noah does win Olympic gold in the 100 meters this year, how his profile changes in the U.S. I think that if you go back — I was a young man at the time, but I remember Carl Lewis, and he was definitely an uber celebrity when he was winning Olympic gold. And I think, given that the Olympics after Paris is in L.A., you may see in the next four or five years, that suddenly track and field athletes become as famous as an NFL quarterback or whatever it is in some of those other sports. I live in L.A. now and I know that Americans don’t like people who don’t win [laughs]. So they had a whole generation of sprinters that didn’t win. But when Carl Lewis was winning, he was as big a hero as anyone. And I think it would be really interesting to see if Noah wins in Paris, and what that does for his profile.

In between segments of the races and training sessions, sprint features industry and Olympic legends like Usain Bolt, Allyson Felix and Michael Johnson, who provide context and insight into the world of elite professional sprinting. How did you approach including those additional voices?

I always think that those roles, particularly in our show — you really want to bring people that have that gravitas because they’re there to provide a different perspective on events. And I think it’s very important that they have that kind of gravitas. We were always really keen to have Usain in there for obvious reasons. And it was great that we managed to tie him down to do an interview for it. And Michael was just someone that I was a huge fan. He does a lot of work with the BBC and the athletics commentary over there. And he’s just one of those people that every time he speaks and every time he opens his mouth, you want to listen because it comes from a perspective. I think on one of his social media profiles, it’s got like 12 gold medals,  which tells you everything about Michael and his mindset and everything. But he also just happens to be one of the loveliest men that you can meet and very down-to-earth and very easy to work with. And it was a joy. And like I said, I was a massive fan of him as a runner. I’m a massive fan of him. So to have him in the show was probably a personal dream come true for me to have it. And I think Allyson, you know, brought another level. And Ato — Ato was someone that, you know, it was a really big personality.

Right, yes, Ato Boldon.

Yeah, he really loves the world of athletics, and I sat down with him in New York recently at an event we did for the show. And Ato, he just cares so much about athletes and athletics and would almost do anything to try and push that sport forward. And so for all of them, it didn’t take much persuading because I think they all feel like this is a sport that should be out there, and these athletes should be more famous and should be earning more money and should be taking more of the plaudits than they probably are for a variety of reasons. So it really wasn’t difficult to get people on board a show like this because they could all see the potential benefit of being on a platform like Netflix and the global audience that always brings. So, yeah, it was it was a perfect storm to be able to get, those names involved in the show.

You’re following the same group of athletes featured in “Sprint” to Paris this summer, which is really exciting. The content from that trip will account for the series’ second season. What do you want to focus on in “Sprint’s” second iteration?

I think that the audience will want to see if Noah can really go on and cement his legacy and win that. What’s going to happen with Sha’Carri? Can the Jamaicans bounce back? But, you know, there were a few new characters kind of coming through as well and a few new stories. And there may be some surprises in Paris. And I think that’s the great thing about it as well — at the heart of these shows is often something as a producer, we’re not in control of. Like, I can’t sit here and tell you who’s going to win the 100 meters in Paris. And that throws up an opportunity on shows like this, because it might be someone unexpected, and suddenly, Season 2 of “Sprint” might look very different from what we think it’s going to look like as we sit here now. And that’s why I love making these shows because at the heart of it is the sport, which will consistently throw up surprise after surprise and drama after drama. And new characters will come and go.

“Sprint” is currently streaming on Netflix.

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