IAAF World Athletics Championships 2017: Usain Bolt brought sanity and belief into a sport blighted by greed

At the 30-metre mark, the crowd was restless. From every angle in the jam-packed Olympic Park, each and every spectator knew immediately that Usain Bolt’s start had again been patchy. Yet they relaxed, secure in the knowledge that the world’s ‘greatest-ever athlete’ would somehow in a muscle, sinew-bursting finish pull it all back.

In fact, the only two sprinters who were ahead at the 40-metre mark were the Americans Christian Coleman and Justin Gatlin. And they were not the first to be ahead of Bolt since the Jamaican stormed the Bird’s Nest in Beijing, 10 years ago with a fiery 9.69. And just when the gap widened, Bolt, face all contorted up, reeled himself in. Gatlin from the outside saw that hair’s breadth chance and seized it to win his first World Championship title in 12 years. Unbelievable but true: Gatlin 9.92 seconds (gold), Coleman 9.94 (silver) and Bolt 9.95 (bronze).

Usain Bolt of Jamaica gestures after the 100m race. Reuters

Usain Bolt of Jamaica gestures after the 100m race. Reuters

Going back to the 40-metre mark, Coleman had two strides on Bolt and the rest. At that moment the 21-year-old American could only lose it to Bolt. Even at 60 metres, though Bolt was gaining and Gatlin holding on like a man hanging from the edge of the cliff, Coleman went stiff. Such is the aura of Bolt that after the 60-metre mark, your senses tell you that besides the blood rushing to your temples, your heart at bursting point, every other sound is the pounding of the 6’5-tall Bolt's strides, gaining on you.

Gatlin, as experienced as any hustler on a New York street, knew instantly that Bolt had not expected him to pace and gain in the sprint. You normally don’t expect a 35-year-old to challenge a final!

The 55,900 inside the Olympic Park, who had waited through the evening, were left stunned. Gatlin was stunned. Coleman didn’t know what had happened. Bolt knew instantly. The fans refused to accept it. It was in their eyes. This was not how the evening was meant to turn out.

This wasn't Jamaica, but London had seen him win an Olympic Gold in 2012. And a farewell had been planned. Gatlin, the man constantly booed at the Olympic Park had gate-crashed their biggest party.

On Friday, after Mo Farah clocked a spectacular victory in the 10,000m, fans drained by the mind-numbing pace and the last lap sprint of Farah had stayed on for almost 20 minutes to watch their favourite British star take his gold medal. On Saturday, in the space of a few minutes, the stadium emptied out. The ones still sitting in their seats had a glazed look. There is huge love and affection for Bolt.

The World Championships were a send-off. And the villain Gatlin had spoilt it for them. Maybe, if Yohan Blake or Coleman had won, they would have accepted it; but not Gatlin. That was a double blow.

Usain Bolt of Jamaica, Justin Gatlin and Christian Coleman of the US compete in the men’s 100 metres final. Reuters

Usain Bolt of Jamaica, Justin Gatlin and Christian Coleman of the US compete in the men’s 100 metres final. Reuters

If these were medieval times, the race would have been re-run. The King wouldn’t have accepted it on behalf of his subjects. It was a wonderful moment when Bolt hugged Gatlin and then the American bowed before the Jamaican. Bolt went on his farewell lap, which according to the script, should have been a victory lap.

All this while Gatlin gave his interview to the waiting TV journalists and then, honestly, didn’t know what to do. Bolt was interviewed while on his farewell lap. It was bizarre that the gold medallist stood like an unwanted guest at somebody else’s party. In fact, Gatlin must have felt extremely lonely standing in that stadium while everybody shouted “Usain! Usain!”

The defeat to Coleman in the semi-finals didn’t trigger any alarm bells, even though it was his first in four years. Throughout his career, especially of late, timings were narrowing down but Bolt was finding those extra inches to the tape in his giant strides. Bolt had also blamed the starting blocks in the first round. The two worst starts in the final were Bolt (0.183) and China’s Su Bingtian (0.224). Bingtian finished eighth.

Andre De Grasse, recovering from a hamstring injury, somewhere in Ontario, Canada, must have wondered about fate. De Grasse had the best season’s timing of 9.69, though it was wind-assisted, and had been elevated as Bolt’s main rival. He would have realised that he has threw away a gold medal by staying away.

It’s not easy to control a crowd of 55,000-plus at that time in the night (past 10pm) when they are all tired and want to catch the tubes and buses back home. But after watching the defeat of Bolt, it was surreal to see thousands of fans silently walk away, subdued and sad. There was a buzz as people discussed the race, a few even comparing Bolt to Muhammad Ali. Jamaican fans, flags draped over their shoulders, sat slumped in their seats. The security, at regular intervals to coordinate the crowds towards various entrances, cheered them on saying "C’mon smile, and come back tomorrow. We are not over yet."

Gatlin praised Bolt after his superb win. "Usain has accomplished so much in our sport and inspired others like Coleman to come out and compete in the championships." When asked what Bolt told him when he gave a hug to the new World Champion, "Usain said: 'Congratulations, you deserve it.' And that's from the man himself. He knows how hard I work. Tonight (Saturday) was all about the W (win) and I managed to sneak it."

Usain Bolt, bronze, embraces gold medal winner Justin Gatlin as Christian Coleman who took the silver looks on after the men's 100m final during the World Athletics Championships. AP

Usain Bolt, bronze, embraces gold medal winner Justin Gatlin as Christian Coleman who took the silver looks on after the men's 100m final during the World Athletics Championships. AP

Gatlin spoke about the booing before the race and even after he had won. “It's not about the crowd. I tuned it out through the rounds and stayed the course. I kept my energy through the semis and came to the final to do what I do. The people who love me, they're cheering for me. They're at home cheering for me and my coaching manager is cheering for me, and that's what I've been focusing on.”

Gatlin also spoke about meeting Bolt in the warm-up arena before the final. “We are rivals on the track and we have had a rivalry on the track throughout the years but in the warm-up area we were joking and having a good time and he said to me 'Congratulations, you work hard for this, and you don't deserve all these boos'. So I think for all that and inspiring me throughout my career he's an amazing man."

It will take some time for Bolt to get over this defeat. A win had been planned for months but such is the way with sport. Showing his appreciation to the crowd, he said, "This place is wonderful and I appreciate this crowd so much. My start is killing me. Normally it gets better during the rounds but it didn't come together. And that is what killed me. I felt it was there.”

Thanking the fans, Bolt said, “The atmosphere was wonderful. I knew they would come out. I'm just disappointed I couldn't do better for them but that's how it goes sometimes.”

It won’t be easy for track and field to live without Usain Bolt. For more than a decade, he has been the soul and conscience of a sport that has been steadily murdered in broad day light. The Jamaican brought credibility and a joy of running uninhibitedly.

While the propensity for greed, malice, and selfishness runs through track and field like an open blister, it was Usain Bolt who brought sanity, fans and belief back in a world where nothing but cynicism ruled.

Updated Date: Aug 06, 2017 11:14 AM

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