9.79 seconds was all it took for Lord Sebastian Coe’s workload – as the recently-elected International Athletics Associations Federation President – to ease just ever so slightly. Many claimed that Usain Bolt’s dramatic victory over Justin Gatlin at the World Championships ‘saved the sport’ of athletics. Whether or not that is indeed the case, the performance of Bolt – along with many other athletes in the Bird’s Nest Stadium – was instrumental in stealing back the headlines from discussions of doping, which had dogged the sport leading up to the World Championships.
Epitomizing this reversal more than any was Mo Farah, who arrived in Beijing having navigated a storm in which his name was, as he put it, “dragged through the mud” over suggestions that his coach, Alberto Salazar, and training partner Galen Rupp, had been involved in doping. Mo’s answers to these claims were as emphatic as his performances in both the 5,000m and 10,000m. Securing gold in both races with unstoppable runs Farah became, in the words of Brendan Foster, “Great Britain’s greatest ever sportsperson”. Having now completed the triple double of Worlds, Olympics and Worlds again, it is difficult to argue against that statement. But what is perhaps even more impressive than Farah’s continued ability to demonstrate his world class talent, is the strength of character which he showed by returning to racing in spite of the media attention which surrounded him.
Also triumphing in the face of adversity was the undeniable Jessica Ennis-Hill, who only decided to compete in Beijing after her performances at the Sainsbury’s Anniversary Games in London on 25th July. Less than a month later she had claimed her second world title in the heptathlon, beating the favourite Brianne Theisen-Eaton. In doing so, Ennis-Hill became the first female athlete to make a successful comeback after childbirth. Ennis-Hill encapsulates everything that is to be admired about athletics: honesty, determination and supreme physical achievement. It is champions like her which the sport loves and needs.
Greg Rutherford – the third of Team GB’s ‘Super Saturday’ contingent back in 2012 – once again completed a hat-trick of gold medals in Beijing, defying critics who claimed that his Olympic title in London was a fluke. He went on to win the Commonwealth and European titles – with the second longest leap of his career. In doing so, Rutherford was welcomed with open arms into the elite club occupied by Sally Gunnell, Daley Thompson, Jonathan Edwards and Linford Christie, Great Britain’s only ‘grandslam champions’ who have held all four major titles at the same time. The mark of a true athlete is the respect they garner from fellow professionals, and Rutherford has bags of it.
And then there is Bolt. Not only did he deny Gatlin the 100m title, but he went on to defeat him in the 200m also, a race which Bolt said “there was no doubt I wasn’t going to win”. Yet even the man who transcends the sport and has arguably done more for it than any current athlete, entered the track surrounded by questions, his supporters buoyed more by hope than expectation. At the end of Bolt’s interview with BBC after his 200m final he drew close to the camera and, wagging his finger, commanded “Eh, Michael Johnson, stop doubting me bro.” There was a sense that he was not merely talking to the former 200m and 400m world record holder, but admonishing a nation for suggesting that the sport’s knight in shining armour was not up to the challenge.
Even those athletes who are not yet heroes and champions have been revered in recent weeks, with a groundswell of support for British prospects Katarina Johnson-Thompson, who will surely respond to her first major setback having fouled out of the long jump to see her hopes in the heptathlon disappear, and Dina Asher-Smith who set a national record in the 100m in London last month before breaking Kathy Cook’s 31-year British 200m record, in a race which saw her run the fastest fifth-placed finish in a major championships. Hopes are high that Asher-Smith will medal at Rio 2016, where she will still only be a spritely 20 years old with her best times ahead of her.
Usain Bolt stated before the championships that he could not save the sport on his own. Neither can Coe, the man who will take charge of the sport with a focus on cleaning it up. The entire athletics community must now unite behind its new president and tackle the issue of doping together. A World Championships which began under such a cloud of controversy but concluded with positive headlines and celebrations is the perfect way to begin.
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