AS a full moon rose over the London Stadium, Justin Gatlin bared his teeth – and shocked the world by defeating Usain Bolt in his final ever 100m race. The controversial American, who turned 35 in February, was supposed to be too old and too slow. Yet somehow he found the speed and composure to be crowned the best sprinter in the world.
When it was confirmed that Gatlin had won gold in 9.92sec – 0.02 clear of his fellow American Christian Coleman, who took silver, and Bolt who claimed bronze a further 0.01sec back, almost all of the 56,000 people in the stadium booed in disgust. A couple of years ago Gatlin described himself as “the Batman of the track – a vigilante. You may not like me, but I’m needed.” Given his previous doping bans few in the London Stadium were celebrating the rising again of this self-styled Dark Knight.
Bolt’s reaction, however, showed the class of the man. The first thing he did was hug Gatlin. Then he told the crowd: “It is one of those things”, before describing their reaction to him as “wonderful”.
“I never expected this, as always,” he told them. “London, I really appreciate the support you gave me.” Despite the defeat he also did his traditional lap of honour, posing for selfies as if he had just claimed his 12th world title and not suffered one of the most painful defeats of his career.
Two years ago, at the world championships in Beijing, Bolt and Gatlin had gone head to head in an epic showdown. With 20m to go the two men were locked together in a desperate tango, stretching and straining for the line. But then Gatlin over-reached, stumbled and, in a flash of 50,000 camera-phones and a whoosh of cheers, Bolt had him – just.
This time Gatlin kept his composure. Coleman made a superb start and was leading after 70 metres. But feeling the heat of Bolt closing in on him, he started to tie up. That gave Gatlin his chance – and in the very last strides he came through to take gold.
Before the start the sprinters came onto the track one by one. Britain’s Reece Prescod, who finished seventh in 10.17, was first. Gatlin, forever the pantomime villain, was booed. For Bolt, meanwhile, there was nothing but love.
As each of the eight finalists were introduced to the sound of a thumping heartbeat, Bolt smiled and put his fingers to his lips. Coleman puffed out his cheeks, trying to blow out the tension. Gatlin, meanwhile was stoic and focused in the face of yet more booing.
As the sprinters set into their blocks the chants began to grow “Usain Bolt! Usain Bolt!” It was reminiscent of the crowd in Zaire chanting “Ali Bombaye!” before his bout with George Foreman in 1974. And, once again, the underdog applied a knockout blow.
No wonder the crowd were stunned. After all, Bolt’s record since he blitzed and charmed his way into the public’s consciousness at the Beijing Olympics, when he obliterated the 100m and 200m world records, has been staggering.
Before Saturday’s semi-finals and finals he had run 142 races since the start of 2008 – and won all but seven of them. Yet throughout 2017 there had been the nagging feeling that he was uniquely vulnerable. He had missed three weeks of the season after his close friend Germaine Mason was killed in a road accident. His back had troubled him. His 100m times were no longer immortal. The door was open for someone to take him. The question was, could anyone step up?
That was answered in the semi-finals as Coleman surged out of his blocks and held his form and his nerve to win in 9.97 sec, with Bolt, who again made a wretched start, 0.01 sec back. It was Bolt’s first defeat for over four years since losing to Gatlin in Rome in June 2013. And with no other athlete breaking 10 seconds, the final looked set to be an immediate rematch between the pair.
oleman looked the man in form, having run 9.82sec in Eugene in June. He had also just become only the second person in history to complete the double-double of NCAA titles – 60 and 200m indoor and 100m and 200m outdoors. The first man to do it, however – Gatlin himself – had other ideas.
Also in the lineup was Prescod, who had travelled by stealth into these championships before deservedly earning a place in the final. Before 2017 the 21-year-old from Walthamstow had run only three senior 100m races due to growing pains and a focus on the 200m.
Incredibly Prescod only turned professional at the end of 2015 when offered a two-year Nike sponsorship. Before then he worked late shifts in a golf club bar before arising early for training.
He had given a hint of his potential when he ran 10.04sec at an English inter-county meet in Bedford, the same day the British team flew to Brazil for the Rio Olympics, and had been referred to as “the British Bolt”. Now he was up against his hero. It wasn’t to be his night. But with Bolt soon retiring into the good night, Prescod is one to watch in the future. – theguardian.com