Behind the scenes at the World Athletics Championships – part two

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As a sporting spectacle, these Championships have not gone according to the script. Mo Farah was supposed to record yet another double in both the 5000m and then 10,000m, fending off all opposition once again on the road to utter dominance and immortality. Usain Bolt was supposed to show to the world once again why he is the greatest sprinter of all time, potentially athletics’ greatest star.

But neither of these supposed certainties took place in the London stadium this year because, as Brendan Foster pointed out, this is sport and not a movie script – you might want Bolt and Farah to cruise off into the sunset, but that is not how athletics works. This is a competition where everyone has a chance to rewrite that script and add their own twist to the story of the Championships.

Bolt and Farah may have been the main draw on Saturday night at the stadium (whispers of Super Saturday Mark 2 wafted around the Olympic Park), but there were other triumphs that the crowd and members of the media pounced upon with glee.

The return of Sally Pearson to the top step of the podium had everyone a little shocked, but still overjoyed. The Australian hurdler won gold at London 2012 but had been held back in the last few years because of injuries, leading everyone to presume she was past her best. In a blaze of glory, however, she proved everyone wrong, dismantling American hopes of yet another gold in the process.

This medal was cheered like any won by a Team GB athlete because Pearson was one of the stars of 2012 – a proud London favourite that had shown the US that they weren’t going to get all the glory. In her teary conversations with the media after her race, she thanked the crowd profusely, believing they were the extra motivation that pushed her towards gold once again.

Next through the media circus came the high jumpers – the effervescent Morgan Lake and the slightly more reserved heptathlon star Katerina Johnson-Thompson.

The media flocked around the former, who beamed as if it were her birthday because, despite finishing without a medal, she had now experienced “that London crowd”. Throughout the competition, she kept whispering to herself “Wow, listen to that!” and she enthused over how the crowd spurred her on to greater performances throughout the competition.

Perhaps it’s because we need a bit of a boost at the moment, but any athlete that spoke glowingly about London was an instant hit with the journalists.

This sentiment was like cat-nip to the journalists, whose favourite questions during these Championships seem to have been “Do you love London more than other athletics venues?” or “Why is London the BEST place to compete in?” Perhaps it’s the effects of Brexit and the fact that we need a bit of a boost at the moment, but any athlete that spoke glowingly about the capital was an instant hit with the likes of Sky, Talksport and LBC.

Johnson-Thompson, often portrayed as dour and cold, was certainly in more talkative form after the high jump and made it into the journalists’ good books by saying how much she loved competing in the Queen Elizabeth Park. During the high-jump competition, she managed to record a new personal best in an event that was really just a training exercise for her main focus, the heptathlon. Not quite as smiley as the cheek-burningly happy Morgan Lake, Johnson-Thompson was still overjoyed with her performance because it marked a positive end to a Championships that have been all about “nearly” for Team GB. Little did she know what was about to happen over the next hour of competition.

Mo Farah had nothing left to prove having sown up the 5000m and 10,000m distances for over half a decade, but he simply wanted to go out on top in his home stadium. The crowd were certainly ready for him to pull his iconic Mobot pose one more time as he crossed the line first but, instead, we had an imposter strike this familiar image.

The Ethiopian Muktar Edris crossed the line in front of Farah and went around for his celebratory lap, albeit a hugely deflated one as the crowd was unwilling to give much support to the man who had crashed the goodbye party for Britain’s most iconic runner.

Indeed, the only person who was happy in the media zone was the Kenyan presenter of CGTN Africa Channel, who said that the only time that Kenyans and Ethiopians unite together is to stop Mo Farah winning – maybe his next career move should be to join the diplomatic service.

With our main medal hope recording a silver, the British journalists in the stadium seemed downhearted – had these championships been a waste? Should we be focusing more of our funding on athletics rather than devoting so much to other sports such as rowing and cycling?

These thoughts could be put on hold though as the relay teams entered the field of play, and there was hope that our women’s 4x100m team could be in with the chance of a medal.

The choreographed entrances of each team provided some light entertainment too for journalists and volunteers that had been working until the small hours of the morning for ten days. From the awkward nodding and waving of the Dutch, to the blue-steel like pouts of the Americans and then the little tea-cup dance of the British – so out of time that it looked like it had been choreographed by the presenters of Top Gear – all of this brought a smile to the face.

Predictably, the Americans got off to a flyer, but a white flash accompanied them down the track, keeping pace all the way. The changeovers were pure and Britain were flying down the back straight – could they really do this?

Well, the answer was not quite, but a clear second place was a still a stellar result for this team that had improved on their result in Rio by turning bronze into silver. This relay squad are young and clearly great friends, and this gives plenty of hope for Team GB in the future.

These four bundles of energy had set the scene for the greatest British triumph of these games, as their male counterparts strode on to the field, quiet but clearly confident.

The cacophony inside the stadium erupted to new levels – could this really be happening? Britain were in the lead!

All the attention of course was on the Jamaican team and their star Usain Bolt – looking to write the perfect finale to his fairytale. Once again though, it was the white flash of a British athlete that set the pace in this relay. The speed only increased as Adam Gemili took over the second leg, and the cacophony inside the stadium erupted to new levels – could this really be happening? Britain were in the lead!

As Danny Talbot handed over to Nethaneel Mitchell-Blake, Britain were closing in on gold. The journalists in my zone suddenly switched on, their eyes lighting up, their ears being deafened by the roar of the crowd. Still, no one really expected Britain to win gold, purely because the mighty Bolt would anchor Jamaica’s last leg. This is the fastest man in the world, who has shown before that he is more than capable of blitzing through the field in any relay.

But, four steps in to the Jamaican’s final run in competitive athletics. catastrophe struck. Bolt pulled up, gripping his hamstring, the pain etched into his face. It was clearly serious, and he fell to the floor as the medics rushed on to help the ailing star.

The crowd barely noticed. Mitchell-Blake was still going, going faster, nudging closer to the front, stretching himself in front of his American rival. And then the roar. It was like being hit by a tsunami as the crowd, journalists, volunteers all leapt in the air with triumph – he had done it, we had won relay gold at the World Athletics Championships.

I may have nearly hit a poor ESPN presenter in the face with a triumphant fist, but the joy in the stadium was overwhelming. The sprinters couldn’t believe it either and, as the big screen projected the official result, the decibel level reached an ear-shattering level as they finally realised they were world champions.

This was a golden triumph against the odds. Yes, Bolt had been injured and whisked away in a wheelchair, but the reality was that Britain had just won a perfect race – every element of their relay was seamless. They bounded down the tunnel with joy and thanked every member of the team and staff, congratulating each other profusely, emphasising this was a true team effort.

These ten days have been nothing short of incredible. It has been a week of greatness illustrated in very different ways. We had the calm, poised and elegant nature of runners like Wayde van Niekerk, Dafne Schippers and Allyson Felix, who were almost like film stars as they glided past me in the mixed zone. Then we had the showmen such as Usain Bolt, Isaac Makwala and Mo Farah, all expertly orchestrating a crowd of 50,000.

Finally, there was the utter joy present on the faces of those athletes who had come here and revelled in the mastery of sport in London. From China’s shot-put champion Lijiao Gong, who repeated “I love London!” to the cameras for two minutes, to a tearful Omar McLeod hugging his family and coaches after winning Jamaica’s only gold of the event, and finally to the British athletes who all had a look of utter awe in their eyes after experiencing a home Championships, London 2017 has been amazing.

Doha will be the next city to host the IAAF World Championships, but it will find it very hard indeed to compete with the brilliance that was London 2017.


is a Third Year at St Mary’s who worked as Press Officer at the World Athletics Championships for the IAAF.

 

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