US sprinter springs big surprise by spoiling the farewell party of the world’s most popular athlete in World Championships 100m final
Two years ago in Beijing the world 100m final was billed as a symbolic battle between good and evil. The people’s champion Usain Bolt was pitted against Justin Gatlin, an American sprinter in the form of his life but saddled with a history of doping.
Bolt prevailed by one hundredth of a second in that epic final and since then Gatlin’s imperious form has waned, while Bolt carried on winning with another incredible Olympic hat-trick at the Rio Games last year.
If Gatlin was ever going to beat Bolt, it surely had to be two years ago. So when he scorched to victory in the London Stadium on Saturday night in a season’s best of 9.92 ahead of fellow American Christian Coleman and with Bolt in third, it left the capacity crowd stunned.
Many of the fans had turned up to take a final look at Bolt at his last-ever championship and, naturally, see him win. So when the script was ruined – and by Gatlin of all athletes – the crowd erupted into a cacophony of boos.
Not for the first time either. Gatlin had been roundly booed in the rounds by a crowd that was very much aware of his past doping misdemeanours as the 35-year-old cut an unconvincing path to the final. More impressive was Coleman, who beat Bolt in the semi-final earlier in the evening and looked like a man in form, an athlete on the rise and the one to beat.
If athletics was a popularity contest, the Jamaican world record-holder would win every time. But sprint races are about who can get from A to B quickest and the stopwatch does not care about popularity or reputation.
Perhaps Gatlin fed off the negative energy from the crowd and revelled in his unpopularity to a degree. Maybe he turned it to his advantage.
The Brooklyn-born athlete certainly ran an inspired race as he showed the kind of form that took him to the Olympic 100m title in Athens in 2004 and world 100m and 200m titles in Helsinki in 2005. Although it is hoped he is a cleaner athlete nowadays compared to the man who tested positive in 2001 and again in 2006.
Before the race Gatlin was a 20/1 outsider with some bookmakers. A rough poll on social media also saw well over half of the voters predict a win for Bolt. But the Jamaican has not been in vintage form this year and looked a little edgy in the moments before the final as he took up his usual character as the pre-race jester, pulling faces at cameras and winking at volunteers.
His start had not been great in the rounds either and he had complained about the quality of the starting blocks at the championships. So it was no surprise to see him get another ropey start in the final with a poor reaction time of 0.183 compared to Gatlin’s 0.138 and Coleman’s 0.123.
With a better start alone he could have won the race but getting out the blocks has never been his strength and as he charged down the straight to the deafening applause of a stadium desperate to see their hero win, it became increasingly clear this was not going to be his night and it would be his first defeat since 2013.
At the finish line there was confusion for a moment over who had won. Then moments later Gatlin raised his arms and the boos began.
In a surreal few seconds, though, the jeers were rapidly replaced by cheers as the attention turned to Bolt and the crowd directed their emotions and appreciation at Bolt instead.
The multiple Olympic and world champion showed his sportsmanship by going straight over to graciously congratulate Gatlin. The American may not have won the hearts of the crowd but he at least had the respect of his fellow competitor.
Then the Bolt party began as the fallen hero was interviewed for the crowd and started a lap of honour – not for his bronze medal achievement but to mark his magnificent career.
“It is just one of those things,” Bolt shrugged. “Thank you to London for all your love and appreciation.”
On his race, he said: “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. It was rough. A little bit stressed. But I came out like at any other championships and I did my best.
“I’m just disappointed I couldn’t do better for the crowd,” he added, “but that’s how it goes sometimes. The support has been outstanding throughout the years.”
Gatlin said: “It’s just so surreal right now. I jumped in the crowd and went wild. Usain has accomplished so much in our sport and inspired others like Coleman to come out and compete in the championships. Usain is going to leave a big void with his character and his athleticism.
“Usain told me ‘congratulations, you deserve it.’ And that’s from the man himself. He knows how hard I work. Tonight was all about the W (win) and I managed to sneak it.”
Gatlin added: “Myself and Usain are rivals on the track and we’ve 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’.”
On the booing, Bolt said about Gatlin: “He’s done his time and if he’s here it means it’s okay. I always respect him over the years. He works hard. He’s a great competitor. He deserves to be here.”
When asked if his victory was ‘a disaster for athletics’, Gatlin replied: “I wasn’t really focused on the boos or thinking if my win was ‘a disaster’. I did this for my fans, my support staff and my countrymen and the people who believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself.”
While not attracting as much media interest after the race, silver medallist Coleman could represent the future of the sport and the 21-year-old said: “It’s an historic moment. Usain is a man who has taken the sport to a whole new level. He’s been an icon of mine as I’ve grown up. It’s an honour to toe the line with him.”
Since his world 100m record of 9.58 in Berlin 2009, Bolt has got progressively slower with each major championship victory – from 9.63 in London 2012, to 9.77 in Moscow 2013, to 9.79 at Beijing 2015 and 9.81 in Rio 2016. Based on those figures, he has picked the right moment to step down.
We have barely ever had chance to see how Bolt reacts to defeat. But we saw it here. Smiling and relaxed, he was in no rush to leave the arena and half an hour after the race finished he was still on the track delighting the remaining fans in the stadium with his trademark lightning pose with a big smile on his face. An hour after the race finished, the stadium was largely empty apart from a loud group of mainly Jamaican fans who were chanting their hero’s name in the direction of the interview area.
Behind Bolt in the race, Yohan Blake, his fellow Jamaican and the 2011 world 100m champion, was fourth in 9.99 followed by Akani Simbine of South Africa, Jimmy Vicaut of France, Reece Prescod of Britain and Bingtian Su of China.
Drawn in the outside lane, Prescod clocked only 10.17 but he will leave the championships with his head held high after a terrific breakthrough season. The British champion clocked 10.05 in his semi-final after having run a 10.03 PB in his heat and is surely set for a promising future.
“The crowd really supported me, I really enjoyed the experience of my first world final,” he said. “Being only 21, to come out here – I ran a PB in the first round, ran fast in the second round to get through to the final – I can’t really ask for more.
“I’m just taking it step by step – I train hard, work hard and do all the right things. I just hope in the years to come I’ll just get better and better. I just want to be the best I can be. This is the start of my career really.”
Earlier in the semi-finals Britain’s James Dasaolu ran 10.22 for fifth in heat one, while CJ Ujah was fourth in 10.12 in a fourth heat led by Coleman and Bolt. Twelve months ago in Rio, Ujah was one place away from making the Olympic 100m final and the Briton was one place away again here in London.
“There was nothing to fear, so I don’t know what really went wrong,” said Ujah. “I can’t say it’s my start because I haven’t always had the best of starts and I’ve managed to come through. I guess I didn’t quite have the zip today but that’s how things go.”
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