Athletics Review 2017: Shocks galore under a cloud of doping questions
Mo Farah and Usain Bolt bid farewell, but not in the manner most had expected them to
Mo Farah reacts after losing the 5,000m final at the World Athletics Championship. Photo: Getty Images
Caster Semenya crosses the line first during the 800m women’s final. Photo: Ian MacNicol/Getty Images
Justin Gatlin bows down to Usain Bolt after the men’s 100m final at the World Athletics Championships in London. Photo: Phil Noble/Reuters
Saturday night in London and there’s a cup final atmosphere in and around the Olympic Stadium. It’s billed as the last championship race for Mo Farah and for Usain Bolt and suddenly it all ends on an air of disbelief – in the original meaning of that word.
Because the sight of Farah getting beaten, followed by Bolt’s total collapse onto the track, wasn’t what anyone expected. It may not represent any seismic shift in the sport but at a time when their enduring superiority was being questioned it at least made them appear a little less superhuman.
Whether or not those London World Championships could be considered a sort of clean break for the sport – as in more believable – is also open to question, and may only be answered in time. The sight of Bolt getting beaten by Justin Gatlin in the 100m showdown the previous Saturday night was certainly another reminder that athletics has a long way to go before shaking its shady past, part of the unease with that result – beyond the ill-informed booing – was Bolt’s apparent lack of anger that his impeccable championship record had been spoiled by a former drugs cheat.
Still after a ceaselessly eventful 10 days, fans of the sport appeared to vote with their feet, London ending up with a championship record attendance of 701,889, the BBC viewing figures also a record high for the event.
Indeed one of the questions put to Sebastian Coe ahead of the final track session was what he might mark it all out of 10. “We wouldn’t be in the business of marking our own homework at this stage,” said Coe, at his sweet diplomatic best. What the IAAF president had also said on the eve of these championships was the biggest challenge facing athletics was not doping; it was attracting a younger and wider audience, and there’s reason to believe London rose to that challenge too.
Truth is that most winning times and performances across the track and field were markedly down on recent years, and without a sniff of a world record either. That men’s 100m final was the slowest since Paris in 2003. Likewise with the men’s 200m, and there are similarly refreshing signs when a Venezuelan woman wins the triple jump and Tomas Walsh from New Zealand wins the shot put. The women’s 1,500m was heralded as an epic yet the winning time was just one second faster than what Sonia O’Sullivan ran to win silver in 1993, behind Liu Dong of China.
When the suggestion this could be partly explained by stricter anti-doping controls was put to certain athletes – namely Bolt and Gatlin – they got strangely defensive, as well they might: but thanks in part to the continued absence of a certain Russian Athletics Federation there was some sense this is now a more level playing field – allowing the likes of a young Norwegian Karsten Warholm to win the 400m hurdles and a hardy Frenchman Pierre-Ambroise Bosse to win the 800m.
For Farah, losing his last championship race on the track had played out like a bittersweet symphony, and oddly may have done him a favour. Having successfully defended his 10,000m title, Farah was beaten into second place in a savagely competitive 5,000m, denying him a fifth consecutive double-double, his first loss in a major championship race on the track since finished second in the 10,000m at 2011 World Championships.
That Farah gave it his all was undeniable: likewise that Muktar Edris of Ethiopia was the better runner on the night, getting in front of Farah on the last lap and simply never surrendering, winning in 13:32.79, slow by championship standards, imperiously executed tactically.
Later, inevitably, Farah was again asked about his enduring association with coach Alberto Salazar, still under investigation by the US Anti-Doping Agency into his methods of training at the Nike Oregon Project. “It’s like a broken record, repeating myself,” said Farah. “Why bring it up year after year, making it into headlines? I’ve achieved what I have achieved – you’re trying to destroy it.”
A few months later, Farah ended his relationship with Salazar, then ends up the surprise winner of the BBC Sports Personality of the Year. He now moves up to the marathon and road racing circuit, it seems, more popular than ever, but given that long association with the shady grey of the Nike Oregon Project there are some who will never give him a clean break.
As farewells go though, Bolt’s was the most spectacularly surprising – pulling up injured in his last ever race, the 4x100m relay: Bolt then limped over finish line, still got to run his final lap of honour, and so retires with 11 World Championship gold medals won over the last decade, two silvers, and that 100m bronze. Not forgetting his eight Olympic gold medals. Will any future sprinter ever match that feat?
Other questions were left hovering after London: Caster Semenya running the fastest 800m in the world this year to win her third World title, in 1:55.17, the South African still unbeaten in two years, was properly spectacular, but how will this result look if the IAAF are allowed restore their original ruling on intersex athletes and hyperandrogenism? That decision is still pending.
And whatever about those still premature laments about the death of track and field, if London at least restored some life, how will it look when the show moves on to Doha, Qatar in 2019?