And then it came crashing down. On Saturday night, at the 2017 IAAF World Championships in London, in the final and biggest event of the night – the 100m men’s final – 35-year-old Justin Gatlin won the gold medal ahead of fellow American Christian Coleman. However, it was the man who came third that was the center of the world’s attention and adoration.
31-year-old Usain Bolt came third in the final competitive individual race of his career. He won the bronze medal – his only bronze on this stage. He lost the gold medal. He lost the silver medal. Usain Bolt, the cleanest racer in the sport, finished his career with a soft bang. It wasn’t a dream finish, but sport rarely offers up fairytale endings. If anything, his performance through the night also proved that he might be leaving the sport at the right time – before, and not during, an inevitable decline after ruling his sport for a decade. A decade in short-distance running equates to around two-and-a-half decades in other individual sports.
Bolt towered over his “craft” for so long and so consistently – he won three World Championship 100m golds (was disqualified at the 2011 Daegu edition) and three consecutive Olympic Golds – that it’s easy to simply slot him into the four-years-younger-than-Gatlin category. He won everything there has been to win since the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
That being said, Justin Gatlin is the anti-hero of his sport. He was booed at London, and booed everywhere he came second to Bolt over the last few years. He was banned twice from the sport (once for a year in 2002, and next for four years in 2006) for doping, and came back in the next generation. He won his only Olympic gold medal at Athens 2004 – when an 18-year-old Bolt didn’t even qualify for the final – and won his only IAAF individual gold a year later at Helsinki. Gatlin was once the fastest man on earth, until he became the most dishonest man in the sport. The 12-year gap between gold medals is a record, too. He won the bronze at the London Olympics in 2012, and the silver at Rio last year.
He served his time, yet many believe he has no reason to be running at top level even today. After two consecutive silvers at Moscow and Beijing, in the final competition against his arch-rival, at a moment when everyone was expecting it to be a baton-passing race between Coleman and Bolt, Gatlin won. He won when nobody wanted or expected him to anymore.
He bowed down to Bolt seconds after winning, acknowledging the greatest of all time. The capacity crowd didn’t get the opportunity to watch that one last Bolt-lightning pose, but they got to see perhaps the most iconic photograph of the year, and of the sport. Running needed a saviour, and Usain Bolt took that responsibility for close to a decade – day in and day out, winning us over with his charm and grace and humour. His athleticism, of course, was undisputed. But on Saturday night, despite yet another poor start, he was expected to kick into the race midway through and run the fastest last 20m as he always did. But the acceleration never came. The kick never came. In fact, a few hours ago, he had lost his first major championship semifinal – to Coleman, when he qualified behind him. He looked far from his best, but was expected to step up to the plate when the final came. He struggled, and still finished on the podium. He struggled, and still saved the sport. From nobody. This was the first time Bolt had “lost” at a championship since the 4x100m final at the 2007 Championships. He won everything he raced in after that, including the “triple double” at the Olympics (three golds each for 100m, 200, and 4x100m).
In an era of Brexit and Donald Trump, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the most iconic athlete of this generation lost to an offender. Bolt said goodbye the way only a human could.