For behind all the spin, all the talk of record crowds (which were impressive), the past week in London has raised far more questions than it has provided answers. And one must fear that the IAAF may not ever be able to provide the answer to some of the really serious questions that continue to dog this sport.
We should be fair: the world championships immediately following the Olympic Games rarely produce stellar results, Berlin 2009 being a notable exception. However, I cannot remember such a feeling of deflation at the end of a championships before. Such an ominous feeling that this could be it.
London 2017 was supposed to be the swansong for St Usain and Sir Mo. Unfortunately, this was one season too many for Bolt and Farah’s week will be best remembered for him tearing into some journalists for having the temerity to ask him some questions. These two superstars neatly represent two fundamental problems that haunt athletics: the scarcity of adequate star quality replacements and – in the case of Farah particularly – the ugly issue of doping.
It is not Usain Bolt’s fault that, over the past nine years, the IAAF have forced him to singlehandedly carry the sport on his extraordinary shoulders. His career will most likely not be remotely tainted by his experiences in London this time around, but he clearly was not fit for these championships.
Sad as it is to bid farewell to such a great entertainer, it is seriously concerning that there exists no obvious replacement. People flocked to watch Usain because he encompassed what athletics was. At the start of any major 100m final, even the most disinterested observer had a tinge in the stomach wondering how fast he might go. We watched Usain because he redefined for us what is possible.
Let’s not open the Gatlin files again. I wrote extensively on this issue in 2015 for a different website and the facts have not changed. He did wrong. He was punished. He served his time. He is back. He is doing well. That is the end of the matter. Instead, we should be more worried by the fact that a 35-year-old was able to win the World 100m title in 9.92 seconds.
As the BBC gleefully pointed out (their bias this year has been beyond the pale), Gatlin’s time was slower than Linford Christie managed to win in 1993. With the notable exception of 21-year-old Christian Coleman, nobody appears ready to even attempt to step into Bolt’s shoes as the Fastest Man on The Planet.
One potential candidate for the ‘new Bolt’ was 400m world record holder, Wayde van Niekerk. I use the past tense advisedly as, after the way the media hounded him, I think it very unlikely Wayde will do anything other than keep his head down from now on.
It was ridiculous to link the IAAF’s decision to stop Isaac Makwala from competing in the 400m to any preferential treatment towards van Niekerk. However, this was a taste of things to come for the South African. This is the sort of intrigue and nonsense that Bolt has dealt with for nearly a decade and the way van Niekerk broke down after the 200m was evidence that he is not up to that.
He is a hugely impressive athlete who will most likely dominate the 200m and 400m for years to come. But he isn’t going to pack out the stands in the way Bolt – and before him – Michael Johnson did.
The BBC’s coverage of London 2017 was that of a host broadcaster desperately wishing that the pictures they were showing were not actually happening. You often got the feeling that Gabby Logan and her team were expecting a director to shout ‘cut’ when Gatlin won, or a Brit underperformed, or it rained. There is some debate over whether BBC Sport has a duty of impartiality in the way that BBC News does. I would be inclined to say that they do (they disagree), but that is for another day – they do have a duty to report facts as best they know them.
Their shocking treatment of Dr Pam Venning live on air over the Makwala issue was beneath the dignity of the world-respected Corporation. The fact that Dr Venning tolerated the repeated ignorant and, in the case of Paula Radcliffe, just plain stupid questioning without losing her cool is deserving of a gold medal in and of itself.
The BBC’s conduct was only an indication of what was going on in the stadium though. They so wanted (needed) these championships to be an unqualified success and when they weren’t, they resorted to filling air time moaning about doping, talking about Semenya, bullying those that fail to follow the script, defending Mo Farah or complimenting the crowd. It all wore a little thin by the end.
Talking of Sir Mo, it should first be said that his win in the 10,000m was probably one of the most impressive pieces of distance running ever produced – and it took a monumental effort on the part of the Ethiopians to dislodge him in the 5,000m.
However, whether he likes it or not, there exists a cloud over Team Farah at the moment and he has done precious little to clear it. If the 5,000m was probably one race too many for the double Olympic champion, the press conference he gave afterwards was certainly one presser too many. Farah has refused to talk to the written press (or anyone who disagrees with him) since details of an as yet unpublished USADA report into his coach were leaked earlier in the year. Farah’s silence and childish tweets about ‘haters hating’ have aroused intrigue, suspicion and accusation.
Some of this has been unfair. However, it is a fact to say that USADA are currently investigating the man Farah credits with his meteoric rise to athletics legend. So impressive has Mo been in the past six years that the media have a duty to ask questions about how he is doing it. Let us never forget that the majority of doping scandals have been exposed not because of rigorous testing, but because of journalistic investigation. It is right they keep pushing, however unpleasant some may find it.
Doping is a problem that threatens to overwhelm and ultimately destroy athletics. Justin Gatlin probably won’t make the next Olympics and so Coe will have to find someone else to rest all the sport’s ills on. Russia will have to return. There are big question marks in Ethiopia (because of a recent Guardian investigation) and Kenya (because of the IAAF themselves). And this is before we get to the inevitable publication of USADA’s report into the Nike Oregon Project.
People are drawn to athletics because it gives them an opportunity to suspend their reality for a little while. They want to see who can run the fastest, jump the highest, throw the furthest. In a world full of Brexit, Trump and global unrest, athletics fans can escape into a realm where it only matters who can run around in circles the quickest. It is all – in the end – meaningless; it does not really matter.
And yet it invokes such intense joy, sadness, anger and hope all in equal measure. But, this sport needs credibility more than anything else. People need to believe that it was possible that they could have been (and their kids still could be) in that stadium taking on the best in the world. Once scandal and politics enter the sporting arena, the illusion is gone – it is all worthless.
Alas London 2017 had far too much reality in it. It forced us to confront things we hoped we wouldn’t have to. Our heroes were conquered. One of them literally fell. And in the sight of Bolt’s impressive frame slumped on the London track, it is hard not to see similarities with the wider sport. Years of pressure, of blows, of stress have taken their toll and eventually, even the greatest give out and give up.
The record crowds we saw in London will not be repeated in two years’ time and, unless the IAAF is able to stem the tide of disgrace and apathy it is faced with, they may never come back. People need their fix, their escapism, their heroes. If athletics cannot provide this, they will look elsewhere. Track and Field really is fighting for its life.
Words by James Fairbourn
Image from Hannah Viner