2 August 2017

Africa: London Sets Stage for Athletics World Championships and Bolt's Farewell

The nine years seem to have flashed by as quickly as the 9.58 seconds he ran in his prime. The tornado that has been Usain St Leo Bolt will whisk and whirl us no more from 14 August 2017.

The world championships in London will witness his final competitive races in the 100 metres. The story should flow that the 30-year-old will go out in a blaze of golden wonder. But it's often never like that.

There are too many contenders for such a prestigious title. Justin Gatlin, 35, the perennial squall in the wake, still offers up his old man's bluster. And now the 22-year-old Canadian André de Grasse poses a viable challenge to the Bolt supremacy.

It started on 16 August in the gloaming humidity of the Bird's Nest Stadium. The opening ceremony eight days earlier employed a cast of thousands directed by the renowned arthouse filmmaker Zhang Yimou.

It was a lavish, man-made sight and sound spectacular which enthralled the 90,000 spectators in the arena and billions watching worldwide for the lion's share of three hours.

Phenomenal sprinting

For the best part of 10 seconds, Bolt seemed heaven sent to explode notions about modern elite sprinting. Athletes spoke about races within races; triumphs in defeat and a god in their mortal midst.

Was he a sassy showman? Yes. After 50 metres of the Olympic final, he'd destroyed the field. Thirty metres later, he had his arms down and behind him only raising his right hand to beat his chest as he coasted in for Jamaica's first gold medal at an Olympic games. And there was panache aplenty to gild the glory.

When asked about the prelude to his then world record time of 9.69 seconds, Bolt responded with an anecdote about eating chicken nuggets, going for a snooze and then having some more nuggets.

Silver medallist Richard Thompson confirmed the tale about the title winning diet. Thompson added he knew he was out of contention for Olympic gold after four seconds. "I had a good start," the Trinidadian recalled. "I felt I was with Usain up to about 50 metres but I felt him pulling away after that.

"I relaxed and once I felt I was up and running, I was in a comfortable second position. I could feel myself pulling away from the rest of the field but I could see Usain ahead of me and slowing down but I was still pumping to the line."

The 23-year-old added: "Usain's a phenomenal athlete and there's no way anyone would have beaten him with a run like he had today."

Bolt went on to win gold in the 200 metres and ran the anchor as Jamaica claimed gold in the 4x100 metres relay. That medal was subsequently taken away and given to Thompson's Trinidad and Tobago team after Nesta Carter was retrospectively found to have taken performance enhancing drugs.

More golds followed for Bolt at the world championships in 2009 in Berlin where he set world records of 9.58 and 19.19 seconds in the 100 and 200 metres respectively. There was gold in the 200 metres in Daegu in 2011 after he was disqualified in the 100 metres.

Living legend

And at the London Olympics in 2012, he made history by becoming the first man to defend the sprint double. It didn't sound remotely boastful when he declared himself a living legend. Golds gushed from the 100 and 200 metres at the world championships in Moscow in 2013 and Beijing in 2015.

Not only did he have the pressure of maintaining his lofty status but he was cast in the role of defending the whole idea of clean sports following the suspension of a welter of athletes for doping. In Rio 2016, he claimed another sprint double, and gold in the 4X100 metres relay. To cut a nine year story short, there have been eight Olympic golds, and 11 world championship titles.

"My main aim is just to win in London," said Bolt after the Diamond League meeting in Monaco in July. "I just want to retire on a winning note."

If he thirsts for that nectar, he will have to improve. In Monaco, he took the 100 metres in 9.95 seconds, dipping under the 10 second barrier for the first time after two sluggish outings before his home crowd in Kingston and Ostrava in the Czech Republic. De Grasse has recorded 9.69 this season.

Other sprinters have often been swifter in the warm-up meetings and even in the heats in the cauldron of competition.

Bolt's coach, Glenn Mills, famoulsy told his charge before the 100 metres final at the Moscow world championships that he would actually have to run 100 metres to win the race against Gatlin. Forewarned, Bolt carried out the orders and claimed the crown in the final 10 metres of the race after Gatlin lunged for the line too soon.

It was the narrowest of margins but the gold and the glitter of triumph were Bolt's again.

Bolt has opted not to defend his 200m world title in London. It is a shrewd move perhaps tinged with a soupçon of vanity. It means he will not race against Wayde van Niekerk, the athlete Bolt has tipped to take over as the next track and field superstar.

"That's one of the most disappointing things in my career now," Bolt said. "He came along at this late stage and I didn't get to compete against him, because I think he's one of the best now."

Van Niekerk won the world title two years ago and at the 2016 Olympics ran 43.03 seconds. His gold medal dash also smashed Michael Johnson's 17-year-old world record of 43.18 seconds.

A Boltesque 200 and 400 metre double looms in London for van Niekerk. The South African said. "Usain has been a massive inspiration. But I've still got quite a long way to go before I even get close to the heights that he has reached."

Local expectations

On a parochial level, Britain's main chance of gold rests with distance runner Mo Farah. He is on an unbroken streak of nine wins in international meetings.

He claimed the 5000m at the world championships in 2011 and won the 5000 and 10000 metres at the world championships in 2013 and 2015. There were also golds in the 2012 and 2016 Olympics over the distances.

Five years ago in London, Farah was one of three British athletes who brandished gold during 'Super Saturday'. The other two - heptathlete Jessica Ennis-Hill and long jumper Greg Rutherford - will not be competing. Ennis-Hill has retired and Rutherford has withdrawn due to injury.

But Ennis-Hill will stand on the podium once more. She will receive a gold medal from the 2011 championships after the original winner, Tatyana Chernova, was stripped of her title for doping.

The US women's 4x400 metres relay team will also be given gold from the 2013 championships after a member of the Russia team was found to be a drugs cheat.

"I'm delighted that the athletes are properly honoured for their achievements and what better way than in front of passionate athletics fans at a major championship," said IAAF president Sebastian Coe.

"For those receiving gold medals, their moment in London will be all the more special as they will hear their national anthem played. Whatever their nationality, clean athletes worldwide will celebrate with them."

Coe, who is half way through his four year term as president, will host a one-day convention on 9 August entitled IAAF Athletics Connect.

The get-together has been designed to discuss a vision for athletics and chimes with Coe's plans - housed in the 15 page Time for Change document - to reform the IAAF. There are bound to be many exhaustive arguments and divisions.

However, a decision to create some kind of role for a certain lad from Jamaica, will doubtless take less than 9.58 seconds.

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