Behind the scenes at the World Athletics Championships – part one

By Sam Martin

A familiar site for the collected stars of global athletics – London, a crowd as alive and pulsating as a hornet’s nest, hallowed asphalt – the echoes of 2012 are back once more in 2017. An Olympics-lite, the World Athletics Championships have rekindled the joy of ‘Super Saturday’ in the British public, who have flocked in their droves to the London Stadium to watch the likes of Bolt, Farah and Felix pound the track – in some cases for the last time.

The media coverage of these Championships has been superb, illustrating in detail and extreme photographic beauty the athletic spectacles occurring on the track. To juxtapose this is the frantic life behind the scenes at the Olympic Park. This is a world filled with intrigue, drama and often great pain as many competitors from around the world see their dreams dashed at the very first hurdle.

The first days of competition have produced spectacular moments, Mo Farah’s victory standing out as the highlight so far for the British fanbase, but the individual stories of athletes, journalists and volunteers are equally as compelling. Working in the Press Office has allowed me to be fortunate enough to observe some of these stories first hand, and where better to start than the ‘media loop’?

The 800m media lap is perhaps feared more by the competitors than the race itself

No matter the distance, every athlete expends their maximum effort in their chosen discipline, but their work is far from done at the point they cross the line. Starved of oxygen and their legs burning from lactic acid build-up, every athlete must then complete an 800m media lap that takes them through the clutches of broadcasters, journalists and occasionally the odd stray volunteer who wants a cheeky photo (me included). The look on the athletes’ faces shows that this journey is perhaps feared more than the race.

For many of those who get knocked out during the heats, the facial expressions show utter distress and dejection. Jamaican sprinters in tears at not making the final in their favourite discipline, Belgians physically crawling their way to interviews with their host broadcasters, Australians being walked through the gauntlet to answer question upon question about why they didn’t achieve their personal best when all they really want to do is head back into the call room and reflect on their awe-inspiring first encounter with a crowd of 50,000.

In contrast to these images are some that reflect utter pride at the accomplishment that has just occurred on the track. Every British competitor is given a monumental cheer, at times as loud as the thunder rolling over Stratford during Saturday’s competition. They may win their race, they might come last, but every one of them walks off the track utterly beaming to collect their protein shake from the team physio.

Equally as heartwarming was the moment that Ahmed Farah walked off the track to a cheer as loud as any received by a Team GB competitor. Farah competed in the 800m for the Athlete Refugee Team and, although he didn’t come near to qualifying for the semi-final, the reward was simply being there for a man who has lost his state but still gets the chance to compete at the highest level of athletics.

American athletes have taken front and center at these Championships already and, watching the operations of the US Team, it is little wonder why. Upon their race, every athlete is met by a team of three coaches; one hands them a Gatorade (blue, red or orange – which I am not convinced are technically flavours), the next asks if they are feeling any tension in their bulging muscles and then the third asks the athlete question upon question about every other competitor in the event.

It seems that for many of these athletes, their events are as much a spy operation as they are a spectacle of sport. One shot-putter was grilled for ten minutes on the Chinese competition and the respective weaknesses of other athletes. This is how the US has turned itself into a powerhouse – meticulous attention to detail and forward thinking.

For bigger US stars such as Allyson Felix, this operation is left to her coaches – she is merely tasked with thinking about the race ahead. After blitzing through the TV broadcasters, Felix made her way serenely through the mixed zone (an area of journalists to fire questions at her), not stopping once, completely focused and ready to head back to the hotel and analyse her tape. This is why she is one of the all-time greats at her sprinting discipline; the sheer concentration was clearly evident on her calm face.

One broadcaster remarked that he had never heard a stadium go as quiet as the Queen Elizabeth Park when Gatlin won

Mo Farah may have provided the major highlight for British fans in the first weekend of the competition, but perhaps the lowlight was Usain Bolt’s final solo race.

This is a man who brings so much pomp and ceremony with him to track meets that he could be confused with a royal. Even so, the King of Athletics deserves this. The fastest man on earth has made sprinting fun, entertaining and beautiful. Furthermore, having never been associated with doping, he has come to represent a bastion against the darker forces of this world. The roar for the Jamaican as he came out to the track was eardrum-shattering, and many expected to ramp this up a decibel or two as he crossed the line to claim another gold. But it was not to be.

Justin Gatlin, who many assume to be Bolt’s arch-nemesis, thundered home ahead of the 6ft 5inch Jamaican, with his US teammate Christian Coleman pipping Bolt to the line as well. A stadium which had booed Gatlin upon his entrance to the track had no idea what to do. A broadcaster from the Olympic Channel remarked to me that he had never heard a stadium go as quiet as the Queen Elizabeth Park had gone when Gatlin won.

A hush descended on the crowd – should they applaud the clearly spectacular performance of the American or boo the man who had been caught up not once, but twice, for taking performance-enhancing drugs, and who had been banned for this offence for a number of years?

Some thought the only answer was to openly cry in the spectator stands as this ‘villain’ paraded around the track. Team USA, on the other hand, let out a wail of joy. Their boy had pulled off the shock of the games, and it was only day two.

Both Bolt and Gatlin were gracious at the end of the race. They performed their media duties, they performed their rituals – Bolt even struck his iconic pose with a smile on his face. This was a smile of pain, though, and his interviews were quiet and calm for a man who often seems more excited than the fans at his magical performances.

The first two days of these Championships have been full of twists and turns and now the relays of Saturday night hold extra significance for both Bolt and Gatlin. It has been fascinating observing the media circus that accompanies these games, and there will be plenty more drama over the next week.

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


Photograph: Sam Martin

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