The evening of Friday 4th August, at the London stadium. Mo Farah is rounding the last bend of the track on his way to a historic gold at the 2017 World Championships. 100m left of 10,000.
The noise is incredible. It swells more than you would think possible as the crowd scream him home. I’m yelling as loud as I can but I can’t even hear myself. It’s like shouting into a vacuum. I’ve never experienced anything like it. The joy this sport can bring when it goes according to plan, it’s quite something.
Contrast that to the next night. Saturday 5th August, and the blue riband event of these games. The 8 men gunning for the 100m title emerge from the tunnel one by one. Everyone is pumped for this. They want their hero’s ending for the crowd favourite, everyone’s favourite, Usain Bolt.
But before we can cheer for Bolt, the man billed by the media as his antithesis has to come out. At last night’s heats Justin Gatlin was roundly scorned, the booing from the crowd louder than the cheers for the other athletes and even some yelling from high up in the stands, calling him out as a cheat. It wasn’t pretty. It put the other athletes off. There were false starts. And Gatlin seemed to channel the negative energy to win his heat convincingly, so it achieved nothing.
Here he comes. More booing. So loud. So unpleasant. I refuse to boo. I don’t like Gatlin especially and I really don’t like what he has come to represent, but equally I don’t think it’s fair that he has been forced into the mould of the athletics uber villain. He’s not the only athlete to come back from doping bans. Hell, he’s not even the only athlete in this race to do that – there’s Yohan Blake lining up in the next lane, receiving a cheer. I feel like it’s all of them or none of them, and the savage nature of this booing isn’t something I want London to be remembered for.
Apart from anything else I don’t boo because the clean athletes in the race don’t deserve the distraction. There are young lads in this race for whom it’s their first Worlds. Coleman, Prescod. Give them a chance. It’s not a pantomime.
Last but the least amount of least you can imagine, out strides Bolt. I’ve watched this man race live a lot over the last few years. There’s something missing tonight. He smiles and acknowledges the crowd, especially the mass of Jamaican fans at the finish line, but the glint at the top of the sparkle isn’t there. He’s wearing shoes of gold and purple, fit for the king he is, with his sponsor’s slogan ‘forever faster’ on the sides.
Not for the first time I wonder if he’s happy about that. He’s amazing, an incredible talent and a titan of athletics, but truth be told he’s not faster now than he was in the past. Of course he’s not; he’s older, he’s been through more, he’s had issues with injury. There’s a lot of pressure on the big man tonight and I feel like those shoes and their crowd pleasing over simplified soundbyte aren’t helping.
Here we go. On your marks. Can he do the impossible?
The gun goes.
It’s gut wrenching to watch. The slow start that Bolt lamented in the heats is still there, it seems to take him ages to get upright and by then he’s too far down – I know at this point he won’t make it. The others have caught him up these days, and he doesn’t have enough of those massive strides to open the gap. It’s hard to see from this angle but it’s definitely not Bolt first over the line. Was he second? Who was first? The crowd is confused, this isn’t how this usually goes and we were all watching Bolt. Who won?
Ripples of what has happened come back to us from those closer to the finish. Has the unthinkable happened? Did Gatlin just win? No, surely not. Anyone but Gatlin.
The scoreboard flickers and confirms Gatlin was first. He’s taken those boos and shoved them right back in your faces. The booing starts up again but then turns to gasps when the next name up isn’t Bolt’s either. Coleman has taken second leaving Bolt with the Bronze. The crowd are horrified. Devastated. At least one woman in our section is in tears. We were supposed to get the fairytale, but the Big Bad just ripped up the script.
Gatlin initially has a look of crazed vindication as he realises what has happened and puts his finger to his lips, the familiar gesture to the crowd to show he’s shut them up. Except he hasn’t. The jeering continues and it’s brutal. His face crumples as he knows they’re not going to let him have his moment of triumph. Bolt is the one to go to him in congratulation, he embraces him and is clearly whispering something to him, to ignore the reaction, to savour the win. Gracious in defeat as he is in victory, Bolt is showing his class here as well as comforting a friend.
I don’t know what to think. I’m an athletics fan and an amateur runner, I’m not an expert on doping or on how these things are dealt with. But I do know what it feels like to make bad choices you later regret, and to want more than anything to move on without past mistakes being cast in your face. Gatlin has served his bans. He’s spoken out against doping. Bolt himself has since stated that as far as he’s concerned Gatlin has done his time and deserves to be there, so who is anyone else to judge? If he is truly clean, then he won that race fair and square and it’s sad that this is how being World Champion has to happen for him.
On the other hand, he’s 35 years old and just beat a load of younger men to the title showing form he hasn’t had for years. I’m torn between feeling that there’s a possibility of there being more to this than we would like, but believing in second chances. I also think there’s something to be said about the strength of character required to know you’re going to be treated so savagely but holding your head high and facing it anyway.
As the shock dies down the crowd start cheering Bolt regardless. He’ll do his lap of honour. This is his retirement do, and noone’s going to spoil that.
Gatlin disappears quickly. No one wants to see him do a victory lap and he knows that.
The ugliest part of this whole situation comes as young Coleman, wearing the same kit as Gatlin and draped in the stars and stripes, joins in the lap of honour a little way ahead of Bolt. But he’s getting no credit for his spectacular silver. Worse in fact; where the flag covers his name, some people in the crowd can’t tell him apart from Gatlin and he gets a few boos of his own. I wonder again how many people in this crowd actually follow the athletics if they can’t tell one athlete from another, or have any true awareness of how many of the big names they recognise have been in the same sort of trouble as the man they have chosen as their scape goat. The media have a lot to answer for.
Inevitably and regardless of the actual race, the night belongs to Bolt.
He completes his circuit of the track with the Jamaican flag in hand, and he bows to his public. It’s a simple and humble gesture of farewell that makes me tear up. This doesn’t seem enough somehow. He’s given us so much joy, drama and excitement. He’s so wonderful to watch and he really makes these events special. His personality is so big, this diminished clocking off seems too small.
Other stars will come and athletics will go on. But the mark of how much a person means to those around them is so often in the gap they leave when they’re no longer there.
Usain Bolt is used to leaving a big gap between himself and the rest of the field. The gap he’s leaving for us was upsettingly plain that night before he’d even left the track. I just hope he knows how much he will be missed.