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On London – and Bolt reaching the finishing line

Since last Friday evening from time to time I have dipped in to the BBC television coverage of the 2017 Athletics World Championships being staged at the former London 2012 Olympic Stadium, now renamed the London Stadium and primarily used as the home venue of the Premiership soccer team West Ham United.

The term ‘dipped in’ is appropriate in this context because, although there was a time long ago in my heady days of youth when elite global sport of any kind dominated my everyday thoughts and viewing habits, these days I cannot raise much enthusiasm for the tainted world of track and field. Mostly I have come to it over these last few days not because I was keen to watch particular events but simply because I was bored and the prospect of watching sport on the telly was marginally more attractive than anything else available.

World Athletics ChampionshipsAs I retired on Saturday evening at approximately my normal bedtime I missed watching the full drama – if that is what it was – of Justin Gatlin’s victory in the Men’s 100 metres final and the attendant eclipse of Usain Bolt who came away with the bronze medal after also being pipped by second-placed Christian Coleman.

Yesterday, however, no doubt in common with many Rust readers, I could not escape the media reports, repeated replays and analysis of the race, the pre-written salutes to the long and magnificent career of Bolt and, of course, the mentions that the crowd had booed Gatlin (who has twice served bans for taking performance-enhancing and/or banned drugs) both before and after the race and also during the course of the medal ceremony.

Having initially kept my thoughts upon these events to myself partly because I wasn’t sure I had anything useful or interesting to add, overnight I gradually changed my mind. Even as I begin to assemble them in some sort of order for today’s piece, I remain unsure as to whether I have anything novel to offer or that perhaps I am simply responding to the internet blogger’s imperative of “I think, therefore I put it out there”. Perhaps it doesn’t even matter.

My first reflection is upon the glories of the London 2012 Olympics – as the UK likes to remember them – and the extent to which the much-vaunted ‘legacy’ therefrom, promised with such a flourish during the bidding process, has been delivered.

The answer, it seems, is disappointing.

Even as the Olympic Stadium was being built, Lord Coe’s ambitious plan that it would host the 2017 World Championships and then become a long-term centrepiece for UK track and field to the world was being undermined both by a succession of consultant’s reports that – as such – it would be a ridiculously expensive ‘white elephant’ and sheer cold hard fact. Hence its subsequent hiving off to a soccer club at a (fire-sale type) horrendously low price simply to avoid the embarrassing alternative of it not being sold off at all.

StadiumFor all the re-presenting of the former athletes’ village accommodation as modern flats and the springing up of boho-style shopping malls in the vicinity, anyone who has visited the area around the London Stadium could not fail to gain the impression that whomever is in charge has been having a damned hard time of it in attempting to create a thriving community among the shells of the mighty (but also mightily expensive) venues built to embody the majesty of the London Olympics.

Whilst these do not quite perhaps match the dust bowl landscapes that today are the sites of the Athens or Rio Olympics, London remains a stark warning to Tokyo (2020), Paris (2024) and Los Angeles (2028) of what might result if they don’t keep their wits about them.

Meanwhile track and field (‘athletics’ by another name) continues to lurch from crisis to drug-fuelled crisis. Partly because it is a sport for individuals, drugs and performance-enhancing stimulants of every kind (legal and illegal) have always been part of its fabric.

Nobody can ever be sure – really sure – of whether what athletics ever presents to the world as its major events is ever ‘what it appears to be’. Or is fair. Or is equal competing against equal.

There’s a lot of money sloshing around in the sport, a lot of potential money for impoverished but talented athletes to make by which they might feed their families back home and build a new life for themselves. I’m sure a lot of people are very grateful for what athletics has given them.

muirAnd yet much of it is questionable. On Friday evening I was struck by the number of indigenous Kenyans and Ethiopians lining up at the starts of races who had rocked up at the World Championships to represent Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain or the UAR. And indeed the number of Jamaicans who, unable to make the Jamaican team, were suddenly and proudly representing in Belgium, Switzerland or Finland. It seems that anyone can represent anywhere (presumably if the money is right) because, of course, in the Athletics World Championships – as with the Olympics – ‘it is the taking part that counts, not who wins or loses’.

And then we come to Justin Gatlin and Usain Bolt.

I’m an unreconstructed hard-liner on the use of performing-enhancing drugs in sport. In my book, anyone who cheats should be banned for life and automatically expunged from the record books. I feel this the best or only way to discourage those who are or might be tempted.

Gatlin has twice served time for drugs offences. Some take the line on such matters that such miscreants – provided they’ve ‘served their time’, of course – deserve a second chance. Especially if those are the rules.  And thus Gatlin is still running and making good money from his athletics career.

Some of us take a different line – e.g. that ‘once a cheat’, the individual retains an inherent advantage over others – and indeed the cynical might argue that Gatlin’s ‘rehabilitation and wiping the slate clean’ was acceptable to Lord Coe (and the others who administer the sport) just as long as Usain Bolt also existed and was able to defeat him.

But there was always a danger in this approach, just as there was always a danger in David Cameron’s decision to promise the UK electorate an In/Out EU Referendum.

In Athletics’ case, of course, the danger came home to roost when Gatlin outsprinted Bolt in the 100 metres final on Saturday.

The aspect of the race that remains as fascinating to me as the Gatlin/drugs one is that of great sportsmen and choosing ‘the right time to go’. There is no doubt that Bolt is one of the greatest sprinters in history. But whether you’re an athlete, a boxer, a soccer player or a volleyballer – when do you choose to retire?

Nobody can ever know how many more titles any given sportsmen and women might have won had they continued one season … two seasons … perhaps even three seasons … more than they actually did in practice.

Equally, nobody will ever know how many great sportsmen and women, now in their middle age and beyond, keep looking back and wish – just wish – they could have their time again and retire at the point where they won their last big title, championship or tournament … instead of the one, two or even three after that which they entered in hope or even expectation but were then beaten in.

BoltFor what it’s worth (and, of course, it is so easy to be wise with hindsight) I had a feeling in my gut from watching Usain Bolt’s media appearances in the months leading up to these 2017 Athletics World Championships, in the BBC previews of them, and even the trailer to I Am Bolt, the film produced to celebrate his career as it reached its much-publicised end, that his heart – his hunger – just wasn’t there anymore.

In that sense, arguably, the fact he didn’t go out in one last monumental blaze of glory with the 100 metres gold medal on Saturday night was perhaps strangely fitting and appropriate.

Such was the greatness of his talent for sprinting – such was his application and hard work, such was his personality and media-friendliness – that Bolt made it look easy, in fact far easier than it actually was or indeed had any right to be.

In that sense, one more glorious approach of the finishing line by the great man – easing down, smiling, looking around, surveying his kingdom and his subjects – might have done all we onlookers (and his sport) something of a disservice.

Maybe the fact that Usain Bolt came third – and not first yet again – in his last-ever appearance on the track and field individual event stage actually did him and his sport a favour. He’ll always be remembered for it, as he will for all his many victories over the years.

About Tom Hollingworth

Tom Hollingsworth is a former deputy sports editor of the Daily Express. For many years he worked in a sports agency, representing mainly football players and motor racing drivers. Tom holds a private pilot’s licence and flying is his principal recreation. More Posts