independent

Thursday 19 October 2017

Athletics is heading from Bolt to the blues

Weird Wide World of Sport

Dave Devereux

Usain Bolt congratulates Justin Gatlin, winner ofthe100 metres final at the World Championships
Usain Bolt congratulates Justin Gatlin, winner ofthe100 metres final at the World Championships

Following the death of a relative (who shall remain anonymous) a few years back I was sitting solemnly beside the open coffin in a funeral parlour.

For the sake of this column we'll call my deceased family member Harry.

A stranger sheepishly came into the darkened room and shuffled gingerly towards the casket, planting himself a couple of seats away from my good self.

He grumbled an Our Father and a few Hail Marys to himself as all the while he kept his eyes fixated on the body.

He then sat in silence for a few minutes before eventually summoning up the courage to turn to me and say: 'God, poor auld Tom was hit hard. To look at him I wouldn't even know him'.

'That's not Tom, that's Harry,' says I, and a flustered Dick (as we'll call him) got out of there quicker than a bat out of hell and made his way across the hall to the room where his old friend Tom was domiciled.

Of course, we all saw the funny side, although if the ground could have opened up and swallowed poor Dick he would have gladly taken that option. Gatecrashing a wedding is one thing, but turning up at the wrong funeral to sympathise is a whole different story.

Speaking of gatecrashing, Justin Gatlin was the ultimate unwanted guest at the expected Usain Bolt show at the World Athletics Championships in London on Saturday evening. The script was written for Bolt, the greatest athlete of all time, to give us one last victory to savour in his final individual race, but the polar opposite and unthinkable happened with the two-time drug cheat ruining the celebratory swan song.

Anyone who's wringing their hands with glee at the prospect of the new Premier League season kicking off is only too familiar with anti-climaxes, with promised Scintillating Saturdays and Super Sundays providing as much excitement as a weather-beaten week day, but this, of all things, wasn't supposed to be like this, this was supposed to be different.

The ultimate sprinter and showman, Bolt has amazed and entertained in equal measures during a glittering and unparallelled career and despite some soundings the passage of time was beginning to catch up with the great one and his not fully convincing path to the final, the optimist in all of us believed he could summon up what was necessary for one last time.

Sadly it wasn't to be and the American villain Gatlin breasted the tape in front as boos instead of rapturous applause rang around the London Stadium, with Bolt only managing bronze behind another U.S. athlete, Christian Coleman.

However, the warmth and love that was bestowed upon Bolt following the defeat told its own story, and athletics will most likely never find another to replace the popular Jamaican.

Many sports have a cult of personality that transcends into the mainstream and they would struggle to attract casual observers without their leading lights.

Snooker has Ronnie O'Sullivan, tennis has Roger Federer, racing has Frankie Dettori, but none of them prop up their chosen field in the way that Bolt has.

In terms of being a sporting icon, he's up there with the very best and the most recognisable of any era. The sad truth is without him athletics will struggle like a Sumo wrestler trying to wade through quicksand.

The smiling, jovial Bolt, who always managed to find the right balance between cockiness and likeability, was the supremely-talented yet convenient poster boy who single-handedly helped to paper over the many cracks that run deep through athletics.

Unfortunately, there was no Hollywood rom-com style ending in front of an expectant London crowd and Gatlin, who twice served bans for drug use, being crowned the new 100 metres world champion perfectly illustrates the seismic problems that blight a sport that's riddled with controversy and is struggling to connect with the public.

The significance of the result will not have been lost on the powers that be who have to negotiate the shark-infested waters that lie ahead, but fans of Bolt will always remember how a gangly teenager from Jamaica rose to prominence and went on to conquer the world and re-write the record books.

Thanks for the memories.

Wexford People

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