London, famous for its theaters and palaces of dreams and destiny, last night produced a sporting drama at the IAAF World Athletic Championships that rivaled any Shakesperean tragedy in the capital’s West End theater district as ageing American athlete and doping cheat Justin Gatlin stole the crown and mantle of world’s fastest man from retiring sprint king and legend Usain Bolt, with a performance that stunned the world.
Gatlin took just under 10 seconds to transform the mood inside the London Olympic stadium from celebration to controversy as the capacity 60,000 strong crowd watched in shock, anger and disbelief as Gatlin and fellow American sprint sensation Christian Coleman relegated Bolt to third place in the 100 meter final, arguably the single most prestigious event in world sport.
Gatlin’s win was cloaked in bitter irony as well as controversy. Bolt’s career as the greatest clean athlete of his generation was not supposed to end in defeat like this, and certainly not at the feet of a disgraced sprinter whose doping history had contributed to the great mistrust and malaise of elite sport, and which Bolt himself had warned would kill athletics on the eve of these eagerly awaited championships.
The Gatlin victory is also potentially a major setback to the IAAF World Athletic Championships in London, one of the world’s biggest global sporting events, and could cast a shadow across the remainder of the event, coming so soon on the second day of the championships.
This was not the outcome that the sold out stadium crowds had come to witness, killing off the fairy tale ending to Bolt’s legendary career that had generated global interest and attention in athletics and sport more generally as well as these IAAF Championships.
The unlikely defeat inflicted by Gatlin on Bolt has lifted the aura of invincibility that has surrounded Bolt since he arrived like a comet blazing a trail across the sporting universe with a procession of once in a lifetime performances that captured the world’s imagination beginning at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games and earning global respect and admiration along the way.
While many contemporary sporting greats like Roger Federer have lost Grand Slam finals, never before had Bolt been beaten in the final of a global sprinting championship.
The circumstances surrounding Gatlin’s unlikely win in his mid-thirties has raised more questions than answers to the dilemma about the position and future of drug cheats in elite sport, and is likely to open up a new front in the war on doping, and revive debate about the eligibility of athletes who have doped to compete again, along with possible lifetime bans, which could be challenged in court as an unfair restraint of trade for career athletes.
Nor was this the outcome that world sport’s governing bodies and figures at the IOC, IAAF and WADA had wanted in the fight to restore confidence among the public, sports fans, sponsors, broadcasters, viewers and especially young people in sport’s credibility.
While Gatlin and many other doping offenders have ridden on the coat tails of Bolt – the world’s most successful and decorated elite athlete who has never tested positive for a banned substance, the Gatlin win transformed Bolt’s farewell finale from an occasion of celebration to controversy.
This was a bad result for Bolt and an even worse result for athletics in the battle to clean up the image and reputation of the sport with a series of sweeping new reforms introduced by IAAF President Sebastian Coe to contain and curb corruption and doping.
While Bolt has blamed his lackluster performances at these world championships on poor starts and problems getting out of the blocks, his surprise defeat has raised more questions about the regulation of athletes who have a history of doping and cheating, especially given the IAAF’s ongoing ban on Russian athletes who were involved in the state sanction doping programs.
While some local sports administrators may have quietly questioned the heavy focus on doping and its relevance to sports fans in the lead up to these world championships, the loud and constant jeering that has greeted Gatlin’s every performance so far in London sends a loud, clear and unmistakable message to those sports administrators that the public will no longer tolerate cheating in sport. Nor will they tolerate a soft approach to doping and corruption.
Instead of leaving uplifted and inspired, many fans poured out of the London Olympic stadium feeling disappointed, dejected and even robbed by Gatlin’s win as they journeyed home from the nearby Stratford tube station.
The anti-Gatlin jeers and protests are only likely to become louder at the medal presentation ceremony when he is elevated on a podium platform above Bolt, who many believed had saved the soul of sport when he defeated Gatlin, a dual doping offender, at the world championships in Beijing just two years ago.
Indeed, the chorus of applause and admiration that followed Bolt on what resembled a moral as well as career victory lap after the shock result, part of the long wave goodbye to the athletic great from Londoners who have embraced Bolt as an adopted son, could not have been in starker contrast to Gatlin’s almost invisible and muted post-race presence.
The timing of Gatlin’s win is also a setback for the IAAF as it looks to fill the enormous gap that Bolt leaves on the world stage – a gap that Gatlin will struggle to fill as world champion but which might be filled in the years ahead by his teenage countryman and potential heir apparent to Bolt, Christian Coleman, whose performances and demeanor have been impressive.
Like the great Muhammad Ali, however, Bolt’s footsteps may never be filled, not just because of the speed at which he moved but also because Bolt has taken a road less traveled in modern sport, the heroism, bravery and loneliness of this unique and courageous journey perhaps and most ironically were never highlighted better that in the circumstances in which he lost his very last race.
Usain Bolt may have lived his public life in sport in sub 10 second time frames, but his legacy of achievements, inspiration and memories will last for generations.
By Michael Pirrie for The Sport Intern
This story first appeared in the blog, The Sport Intern. The editor is Karl-Heinz Huba of Lorsch, Germany. He can be reached at ISMG@aol.com. The article is reprinted here with permission of Huba.