When the gun fired, Usain Bolt’s form in global 100m and 200m finals read: WWWW, DSQ (false start), WWWWWWWWW. Few except his seven rivals wanted it to end with an ‘L’ for loss. Bad news: it did. Time, and Justin Gatlin, who has served two drugs bans, killed the perfect send-off.
You may never see a greater anti-climax. In this one, the world champion was jeered while the darling of the global crowd was acclaimed as the hero. Gatlin won in a time of 9.92 secs, with his fellow American Christian Coleman second in 9.94secs and Bolt third (9.95secs). Frankly, it was an awful result for track and field, where a culture of forgiveness allowed Gatlin to return to professional sprinting after offences in 2001 and 2006 – and finally overcome his longstanding inability to deal with Bolt, who called the victor “a good person.”
There was no animosity down there on the track, but a Gatlin win, at 35, was an embarrassment to athletics, where there was a rash of drugs scandals after the 2012 London Olympics in this very stadium. Gatlin is by no means the only top athlete who has been given a second or third chance after pharmaceutical cheating, but his transgressions stand out in sprinting, which has led the way in conning the public.
Questions abound. Gatlin is the oldest world 100m champion, so did previous drug use help him to go on this long? Is he still benefitting now? Track and field might have escaped this inquest had Coleman been the one to end Bolt’s reign. Mr Lightning simply went on too long: encouraged perhaps by commercial incentives to race on beyond the Rio Olympics.
Gatlin claimed not to be bothered by the boos of the London crowd. “I tuned it out through the rounds and stayed the course,” he said. “I did what I had to do. The people who love me are here cheering for me and cheering at home.
“I’ve had many victories and many defeats down the years. It’s an amazing occasion. We’re rivals on the track but in the warm-down area we joke and have a good time. The first thing he [Bolt] did was congratulate me and say that I didn’t deserve the boos. He’s an inspiration.”
As you read this, you are already in the post-Bolt era, with only a 4 x 100m relay to come, which appeared in his schedule as a kind of insurance policy against defeat in the 100m. But this Saturday night shocker was his real departure from the lone-wolf world of sprinting, where he became the most globally recognised sportsman since Muhammad Ali, with a greater reach than a Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan.
In total, Bolt’s work in 100m and 200m World and Olympic finals since 2008 has consumed less than four minutes of the planet’s time. His brilliance has been meted out in 10secs and 20secs chunks, with a false start in 2011 in South Korea the only blemish. But in those bursts, spread across nine years, he has taken up permanent residence in the human imagination, as the embodiment of irresistible speed, packed into an endearing personality. His exuberance, and track devouring stride, have the been the biggest staging posts in world sport for almost a decade.
Bolt understood this dynamic. Asked this week how he hoped to see his final dash reported, he said: “Unbeatable. For me, that would be the biggest headline. Unbeatable. Unstoppable. Hear that guys? Jot it down.”
His valediction began shakily, with a first-round moan about the blocks, after he had spent the first 40 metres labouring, and looking around in a way that caught the attention of Michael Johnson, a former Olympic champion, who considered it a bad sign. “I think these are the worse blocks I’ve experienced. It was just not a smooth start,” Bolt said on Friday night. “I have to get this together. I have to get the start together because I can’t keep doing this.”
There was enough in that verdict to confirm creeping anxiety. Bolt knew his best form was behind him. He was running from memory. Hanging on. A nine-year reign as champion sprinter is phenomenal. At 30, he was entitled to see shadows on the track, hear doubts in his head, feel the rumble of younger men.
Chief among those was Coleman, who inflicted Bolt’s first defeat in a World or Olympic semi-final with the fastest time of the round: 9.97secs. In that third semi, Bolt was forced to work uncommonly hard, chasing Coleman, rather than running him down. His running was laboured – strained. And as the pair crossed the line, Coleman flicked the master a look, as if to tell him his day had come.
A student still, at the University of Tennessee, this was Coleman’s first international competition, on his first visit to Europe. He is the next big star. There is hope too for Britain’s Reece Prescod, 21, who finished seventh.
Everyone’s favourite track villain, Gatlin, who has been in Bolt’s psychological grip, has never given up the fight, and was there again in eight, next to Yohan Blake, one of five from the London 2012 final who have tested positive for drugs.
This is the other story that ended here (the world will hope): the implausible spectacle of a sprint champion – the winner of three consecutive 100m-200m Olympic doubles – stepping away from global championships without a positive dope test against his name. If Bolt has raised track and field’s showbiz rating off its usual chart, his ‘clean’ medical history had kept the sport’s dignity just about alive.
Above all though this was a final look at a brilliant human talent who understood what the masses want – and how to give it to them. Incredibly, track and field is going to have to manage without him. His defeat here only sharpens that loss, as does Gatlin’s victory, which few will want to celebrate.