By Kieran Moriarty
At a time when international athletics’ credibility had sunk to an all time low, the world’s finest athletes came through to produce a spectacular show to sow the first green shoots of recovery for the sport’s reputation.
The doping story that had threatened to engulf athletics in the weeks leading up to the World Championships in Beijing was temporarily consigned to the back of the public consciousness. Instead it was replaced by heart-warming stories of triumph and the privilege of watching great athletes become legends.
What better example of athletics overcoming its dark side than the 100m and 200m duels between Jamaica’s Usain Bolt vs. Justin Gatlin of the USA. The people’s hero and the standard bearer for clean competitors vs. the disgraced unrepentant pantomime villain of the sport.
Gatlin may have served his punishment in the form of a two year ban for doping yet he still remains the devil of athletics, a title that clearly irritated the US sprinter as reflected by his boycott of the BBC. With this media backdrop influencing fans’ perspective, these duels between Bolt and Gatlin became the most intensely anticipated races in recent years.
The snapshot of Bolt straining across the finish line ahead of Gatlin in the 100m sprint will surely be the iconic image that people will remember from Beijing. Despite the fact that Gatlin was in better form going into the race, despite the fact that Bolt has struggled with injuries and that his powers appeared to be waning, the Jamaican sprinter once again exhibited the hallmark of a true champion by delivering a staggering performance to take gold when expectations were low.
Bolt had pleaded with the media before the championships that he couldn’t be the sole beacon of clean athletics. Yet assigned with this subliminal mission from fans to beat Gatlin for the sake of the sport, Bolt took that burden upon his shoulders and consolidated his place as a true athletics legend.
With the 100m gold secured, it seemed that the magic of performing in the biggest races had revitalised Bolt and blown away the concerns about his recent form. The belief returned that the Jamaican was back to his imperious best and this was proven indefinitely as he stormed to gold in the 200m, again vanquishing Gatlin to the delight of the athletics world. Another double gold medal haul – was it ever in any doubt?
However, despite Bolt’s symbolic victory at a pivotal moment for athletics, these championships offered so many more stories beyond this duel.
How could anybody look beyond the triumphant return of Olympic champion and British national treasure Jessica Ennis-Hill to take gold in the heptathlon? In ordinary circumstances, such a result would arguably be the expectation for this consistent champion going into a competition. However, Ennis Hill’s circumstances were far from ordinary. The heptathlete had only returned to training in November, following the birth of her first child 13 months ago, and only decided to compete in Beijing following a promising performance at the Anniversary Games in London in July.
Nevertheless, Ennis-Hill returned and obliterated her competition to take gold with a masterclass in the heptathlon. Following her respectable but raw performance, Katarina Johnson-Thompson should learn valuable lessons from her experiences in Beijing and competing alongside Ennis. Despite her disappointment, Johnson-Thompson will have her chance again in the future.
Another man with a point to prove in Beijing was Mo Farah. Despite being the double Olympic champion in the 5,000m and 10,000m along with many other accolades, Farah has endured a difficult summer in which his prowess has been under scrutiny due to the allegations made against his coach. The evidence implicating Alberto Salazaar for doping his athletes continues to pile up and his association to Farah has become toxic.
Despite this distraction, Farah demonstrated his class to silence his critics the only way he knows how; dominating on the track and taking both golds. In the 10,000m race, even a clumsy trip for the Olympic champion was not enough to put the brakes on the British athlete as he raced to victory. In the 5,000m, it was a similar story. Despite the Ethiopians’ valiant efforts to prevent the rampaging Briton from leading, as well as a surge from Caleb Ndiku with 700m to go, Farah used that legendary ‘kick’ of his to race past Ndiku on the final bend to secure another gold.
With that, Farah pulled off the most audacious of hat tricks, the ‘triple’ double of winning three successive 5,000m and 10,000m races at the Olympics and two World Championships. In the aftermath, commentator Steve Cram made the huge claim that Farah was “the greatest sportsman Britain has ever had”. This performance only strengthened that case. Bolt and Farah may compete in dramatically different events yet both leave Beijing with their places rightly earned in the athletics pantheon of greats.
I could regale you with more inspiring stories from Beijing. USA’s Ashton Eaton beating his own world record to win gold in the decathlon. David Rudisha’s masterful management in the 800m to win yet another gold medal. Dutch Dafne Schippers last minute comeback to snatch gold in the women’s 200m. The sometimes overlooked part of the London 2012 ‘Super Saturday’ triumvirate Greg Rutherford, taking gold in the long jump to join the list of elite British athletes that have held all four major gold medals at the same time.
However, despite all of the positives on display, the World Championships have not been perfect. Even with the spotlight shining upon the sport, two Kenyan athletes were sent home in disgrace for doping, making a mockery of the IAAF’s insistence that these championships would be clean.
We have seen the best of what athletics is capable of in Beijing. The true essence of the sport was on display: sporting excellence, athletes pushing the boundaries of their sports and their own physical limits. These world championships have put athletics on the long road to recovery. However, it is crucially important that the success of Beijing cannot cause them to become complacent.
Photograph: Erik van Leeuwen via Wikimedia Commons