When the gun fired here, Usain Bolt’s form in global 100m and 200m finals read: WWWW, DSQ (false start), WWWWWWWWW. Few except his eight 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 for nine years was acclaimed as the hero. Gatlin won in a time of 9.92 secs, with his fellow American Christian Coleman second and Bolt third. Frankly, it was a woeful 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.
As you read this, you are already in the post-Bolt era, with only a 4 x 100m relay to come, which sat 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 finals in 100m and 200m World and Olympic finals since 2008 has consumed less than four minutes of the planet’s frayed attention span. 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 suggest creeping anxiety, which was hardly surprising given how far he pushed the envelope of his greatness. No matter how grand his talent, 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 around him.
Chief among those was Christian 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, even. And as the pair crossed the line, Coleman flicked the master a look, as if to tell him his day had come.
Coleman was 2017’s fastest man, with a 9.82 secs in the NCAA Championships at Eugene, Oregon, in June. A student still, at the University of Tennessee, this was his first international competition, on his first visit to Europe. In a stellar season, Coleman had broken 10 seconds six times – or seven by the time he lined up for the final in lane five, next to Bolt in four, with Britain’s Reece Prescod, 21, in nine.
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 in their careers.
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 he celebrated almost alone.