London leads last global goodbye to world’s favourite sporting hero Usain Bolt at IAAF Championships that shock, captivate & revive athletics appeal globally
By Michael Pirrie | August 14, 2017
London hosts happy and almost glorious world athletics spectacular at sold out Olympic stadium as sport begins to emerge from doping’s dark shadows with record crowds in new era under Sebastian Coe
While happiness can be an elusive and fleeting experience, prompting ever increasing studies into what brings joy and meaning in life, Londoners and visitors from across the world seem to have found some happiness again in these troubled times back at the Olympic Stadium in the capital’s east, returning to the scene if not the exact same surroundings of those fabled London 2012 Olympic Games, like time travellers seeking to reconnect with special moments, memories and places from the past.
All roads, tube lines and flight paths across the capital, Europe and beyond led back to Stratford, with athletics at the cross roads following a series of doping and corruption scandals and in need of some sporting salvation and redemption.
There was no Doctor Who waiting at the local phone booth or Captain Kirk on the landing deck to greet the Olympic time travellers. This was another time if not place, different but still familiar enough on arrival to feel something special was about to happen, the experience beginning again with teams of friendly, energetic and well informed volunteers who welcomed fans from across the UK and the world back to the future of their sports.
NEW AGE OF ATHLETICS
The London 2017 championships went against conventions and expectations that athletics was declining further in international reach and appeal and provided a lifeline to one of the world’s oldest and most important sports.
This was athletics like never before, beamed on giant video screens and boards that created a concert-like atmosphere inside the vast London Olympic Stadium that had been modified to bring action and athletes closer than ever before in a venue that many experts consider the best in the world.
This was not traditional stadium sport and the fans loved what they saw on the field, track and massive video screens – a new and cleverly choreographed sports entertainment experience as the routine ‘Call Up’ room for the athletes became the new Green Room of sport.
Athletes were welcomed onto the stadium track by announcers, fireworks, plumes of flame and booming applause as if entering a new giant outdoor sports variety TV show called ‘The World’s Got Talent.’ One almost expected Robbie Williams to appear with a rendition of ‘Let Me Entertain You’ and Simon Cowell to hand out some medals.
Instead, it was the athletes who did all the entertaining in partnership with the crowds.
London 2017 produced electrifying sport and athletes, and showed that sport is still one of the most inclusive and unifying forms of human expression and activity on the planet.
The human opera that surrounds elite sport in the pursuit of life defining dreams, London 2017 was a spectacular symphony of sport and the human spirit, with uplifting displays of excellence and grace under enormous pressure, expectation and often extreme adversity, as if conjured from a sports science fiction story.
These real-life scripts included performances of high speed movement, endurance, strength, bravery, resilience and daring imagination.
London 2017 resembled a live, non-stop sports action-drama movie full of twists and turns that rivalled the giant pretzel shaped Orbit structure that overlooked the London Stadium.
— iSportconnect (@iSportconnect) August 14, 2017
Some of the plots seemed too extreme to believe possible like the hero of the championship, Usain Bolt, an athlete so singularly gifted that he seemed to come from a galaxy far away collapsed on the track in his last race, resembling David Bowie’s Man Who Fell To Earth.
Another athlete defied illness and the system to qualify and reach the finals of the demanding 200 metres sprint, while an unheralded American teenage college student beat the world’s fastest man.
London 2017 made for compelling viewing on television and constant conversation online, on Youtube, Twitter and on the buses, at tube stations and in restaurants, homes, offices, playgrounds, and building sites across the capital and international centres as the home and competing nations celebrated their athletes and their stories that went beyond lap times, splits, heights and distances travelled and jumped and captivated and engaged audiences worldwide.
Stories like that of Australian Sally Pearson, a unique time travelling athlete who returned to the London Stadium after recovering from almost career-ending injuries and repeated history when she won the 100 metres hurdles – the same event she won five years earlier at the London 2012 Olympic Games, this time perhaps with legendary Australian Olympic sprinting icon Betty Cuthbert, who passed away earlier in the championships, on her shoulder guiding Pearson over the hurdles in a technically faultless performance that inspired the London crowds and her home nation several time zones away, highlighting sport’s unique capacity to move and unite people and places.
If athletics is in crisis, the crowds told another story. On the opening weekend of England’s Premier League season, the world’s most competitive, popular and highly paid domestic football competition, the IAAF championships drew the biggest crowds in football obsessed London.
This followed more than a week of sold out sessions in the 60,000 capacity stadium, totalling 700,00 paid for tickets, almost unparalleled for any recent major sporting event anywhere in the world. Athletics was back in the game.
The athletics crowd had its own story. A multi-generational family friendly audience of parents, children, teenagers, students, and couples through to elderly and disabled fans who filled stadium stands – significant and diverse sections of the community seeking a different sporting experience that athletics has long provided but whom the sports marketing industry had overlooked in recent times, and whom the IAAF has targeted with new sports presentation and entertainment formats and technologies to bring new fans and new relevance to the sport.
This was not Premier League football but it was premier sport, and there was much about these championships that was beautiful, including the unlikely win by host Team GB in the men’s 4×100 metes men’s sprint relay after a history of dropped batons and up against the powerful Americans – the win perhaps equivalent to Brazil’s last-gasp penalty goal victory against great rivals Germany in the Rio 2016 Olympic football competition.
If these championships were about the future of athletics – with implications for the Olympic Movement where athletics is the premier sport – they were also an event for and of our times.
With the world on a rhetorical war footing, the star of the London show, Bolt, was a human missile of speed and force for goodwill and respect towards others as were fellow athletes.
This was a sporting event with messages and values added, transcending sport and speaking to wider issues of our times.
In the growing “Country First’’ culture of rising nationalism, the London Stadium crowds roared unconditional support and love for athletes competing from around the globe, and for countries as diverse as Afghanistan, North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Congo, Syria and many others who sent teams to London, demonstrating the power of sport to break down barriers to better understanding of people and nations.
And in a period of changing immigration patterns and policies that have displaced millions of people, the athlete who had the biggest impact on these championships along with Bolt, was a refugee from Somalia, now one of the greatest Olympic and world champion distance runners of all time – Sir Mo Farah, who was separated from his twin brother in the escape to London as a child.
In additional to piercing crowd noise, the soundtrack to the championships included constant jeering of American sprinter, Justin Gatlin and not just because he beat Bolt in his 100 metres showpiece, but because Gatlin was a drugs cheat.
THE VALUES OF SPORT
While Bolt graciously defended Gatlin’s right to compete because he had served his penalty, helping to quell the drugs storm, the Gatlin backlash and crowd protests highlighted inconvenient truths about doping beyond Russia in other nations, signalling a hardening of public attitudes against doping across sports following Lance Armstrong’s doping operation, as elaborate, extreme and calculating in its own ways as the Russian doping systems.
Coe knows that public trust arrives on foot but can often leave quickly in a taxi – or black cab – and the leadership he has shown as new IAAF President in pushing for the temporary suspension of Russian athletes from international competition, including last year’s Rio Games, has helped to revive trust in athletics again.
The ban, supported by WADA, but controversial in Olympic circles at the time coming close to Rio, was described by IOC President Bach at the start of these IAAF championships in London as “courageous,’’ and has shown Coe and his IAAF Council colleagues to be on the right side of history after Russia’s athletics leader apologised recently for the first time for the doping scandal portrayed in the McLaren report, despite numerous previous denials from Russian authorities.
With a new anti-doping team and strategy in place in Russia to stop elaborate and extensive doping happening again, and new IAAF independent testing and integrity unit protocols and procedures, including a list of countries under close watch for possible doping activity, there is a new found sense of hope and optimism that the war on doping is turning in favour of clean athletes more than ever and may have even peaked.
The large crowds that turned out in London for the IAAF’s premier global event were significant, creating a theatre environment in the stadium that helped athletes to perform at exceptional levels, while also suggesting that credibility was returning to the sport, supported by record numbers of athletes, spectators, media interest, digital engagement and participation of more than 200 nations.
THE LAST WALTZ
While big crowds witnessed numerous inspiring and heart wrenching displays of endurance, speed and bravery inside the London Stadium, none was perhaps sadder or more moving that the world’s fastest man walking almost in slow motion and morphing into a his signature human lighting bolt pose for the world’s media and his beloved London fans one last time, stopping and lingering momentarily at the turn and final straight of the stadium track.
“I was saying goodbye to my events and tools… saying goodbye to everything. I almost cried,” Bolt said quietly at his final press conference which followed a last goodbye to the stadium where he became the first man in history to successfully defend the 100 metres Olympic gold medal title, after which fans departed into the London night upbeat and euphoric at being part of world history – just as many also felt on leaving the cauldron of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games Bird’s Nest Stadium nearly 10 years ago when Bolt set the first of his almost unimaginable Olympic and world records.
Since then Bolt has almost single handedly rescued world sport from a crisis in corruption and doping with a series of once-in-a-lifetime drug-free performances that have brought about a revival of priorities and values in sport globally.
Of those electrifying performances, Bolt regards his 100 metres sprint victory at the 2015 IAAF world championships in Beijing as the most important – the event in which he defeated doping offender Gatlin in a race that many believed saved the soul of sport.
Thank you, @usainbolt.
What a journey it’s been. pic.twitter.com/t2bDZpJ9o6
— IAAF (@iaaforg) August 13, 2017
“I prove you can be great without doping,” Bolt told the media conference in which he gently expounded homespun universal thoughts about lessons in life as the fastest man in history that could also provide the forward to a common sense guide to success in life beyond sport.
Bolt advocates a tougher approach against doping, including lifetime bans for athletes who “go out of the way to cheat to be a better athlete.”
Bolt says he has no bucket list, but in initial retirement he is looking forward “just to be free…I’ve been doing it since 10; all I know is track.”
BOLT ON LEGACY
And while Bolt’s ability to do things that have never been possible before has been admired and celebrated globally, he now wants to party a little himself, relax and spend time with friends and family.
Bolt wants his legacy to be for children to know that they can be great but says it is important to instil in children from a young age what it takes to be great, especially “hard work, no matter what’s going on.”
And while vulnerable to injury and defeat after winning an unprecedented three gold medals at the Olympic Games in Rio for the third consecutive time at the Olympic Games, Bolt said he has no regrets about competing this year at the World Championships in London despite suffering his first ever loss in a global championship, and stayed on for his fans.
“My fans wanted to see me for one more year…they kept me going …success would not have been possible without the fans.”
Unfortunately for those many legions of admirers Bolt confirmed that the London 2017 championships was his last event, before leaving the press centre for the last time to an ovation of applause and respect from world-wide media for whom Bolt was a constant source of front page fascination and excitement every time he went near a track.
THANK YOU & GOODBYE – A WORLD WITHOUT BOLT
While the London 2012 Olympic Games may have revived the host nation’s belief in itself, the organisers of the London 2017 World Athletic Championships hope that the event has started to restore belief and confidence in the sport again.
Coe’s rescue and reform of the sport that has been at the centre of his life since childhood, much like Bolt, remain on track and are being closely followed by other world governing bodies also seeking new ways to maintain the reach and relevance of their sports in our ever rapidly changing global society.
The IAAF will need to find new ways to build on Bolt’s triumphs and turn the best athletes into new stars of the future who can relate and communicate in ways that are meaningful to the lives and landscapes of young people.
It will also need to continue to innovate and adapt the event heavy athletics schedules to get athletes closer and more accessible to spectators in the venues and on mobile and social media, as well as in urban settings closer to young people.
London organisers were highly fortunate to have Bolt and selling tickets will be a lot harder in Doha, the next host city, without him – like removing Adele or Ed Sheeran from the top of the bill.
The London experience, however, has provided the momentum for Coe’s sporting revolution to continue and develop on stronger foundations without Bolt, who hopes to continue working with Coe to revive the sport that has been so central to both their lives.
For nearly a decade Bolt has thrilled the planet with his superhuman speed encouraging the world to think big and do great things, and providing a reassuring presence globally and in the lives of many people.
As Bolt departs, the only question that remains is when or if we will ever see the likes of such a singularly gifted athlete and person again. While Muhammad Ali may always be regarded as the greatest, Bolt will be the fastest.
Bolt has moved at the speed of sound in human terms, but he may not be able to out run the sound of worldwide applause and ovations that might never be accorded to another athlete.
Details of Bolt’s immediate future seem uncertain but with his natural showmanship skills, and a futuristic costume like the one worn by Australian Olympic champion Catharine Freeman at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, a role in the Marvel superhero movie franchise may be possible down the track.
In the years ahead as the mythology surrounding Bolt evolves, we may all become time travellers as we recall the happy and almost impossible times and triumphs in Olympic and World Athletic Championships cities and venues around the world of the man who has travelled fastest in time – Lightning Usain Bolt.
Michael Pirrie is a London based international communications and media advisor and commentator on major events and world sport including the Olympic Games. He was executive adviser to the chairman of the London 2012 Olympic Games Sebastian Coe and led the international media campaign for the London Olympic Bid against Paris, New York, Moscow and Madrid.