Huge anticipation surrounded Usain Bolt’s last individual race in the 100 metres final at the IAAF World Championships on Saturday, but instead of a huge roar greeting him when he crossed the line there was an awkward silence.
Everyone knew the greatest sprinter of all time had failed to sign off with a win, and combined with Justin Gatlin taking gold, the crowd inside London Stadium were unsure how to react.
Boos soon rang out for Gatlin and he responded by putting his finger to his lips, but a chant of ‘Usain Bolt’ quickly lightened the mood as the eight-time Olympic champion was bid farewell.
Rarely has the bronze medallist received more attention than the new world champion, but the reception of the result was indicative of the narrative that has dominated the duo’s rivalry in recent years – that of a clean athlete versus one who has served two separate doping bans, good against bad.
Gatlin may have pulled off the remarkable by becoming the first man to beat Bolt in a major 100m final and the oldest gold medallist in the history of the event at 35 years old, but it was his past as a drugs cheat that took centre stage in the aftermath.
The American received early reinstatement after a positive test in 2001, and five years later he was handed a four-year suspension that ruled him out of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.
He returned in 2010 but the emergence of Bolt, a loveable character adored by fans across the globe after taking the 100m to new heights with a world-record time of 9.58 seconds that still stands at the 2009 Worlds in Berlin, led to him being cast as the villain out to thwart the Jamaican’s super-human efforts to establish an unprecedented legacy.
It is somewhat illogical to single out one such athlete when so may have others have been found to have doped, and Gatlin, the Olympic 100m champion in 2004, struggles to comprehend why his past continues to besmirch his achievements.
“I really don’t need to understand,” Gatlin, sat between Bolt and silver medallist Christian Coleman, said in his post-race media conference at London Stadium on Saturday.
“I wasn’t booed in ’10, I wasn’t booed 2011, I wasn’t booed in ’12 here, 13, 14 or 15, but now I’m booed.
“If anything, I can understand the rivalry but it’s not a bitter rivalry [with Bolt]. I respect him the utmost and every time we’ve crossed the line I shake his hand and give him a hug and tell him congratulations. That’s all that matters to me.
“I’m just a runner like anyone else sitting up here. I’ve done my time, I’ve come back, did community service talked to kids and inspired kids to walk the right path. That’s all I can do.
“Society does that with people who have made mistakes and I hope that track and field understands that too. We should try to have a cooperative society.
“That’s why I’m back in the sport and that’s why I’m still running. That’s why I believe in myself 100 per cent.”
Bolt backed the 35-year-old’s return to the sport, branding him one of his toughest competitors during his history-making career.
He said: “He’s done his time and if he’s here it’s OK. I always respect him as a competitor. He works hard.
“He’s one of the best I’ve ever competed against. Tonight he showed up and was the better man and executed well.
“For me he deserves to be here because he’s working hard. He’s ran fast times, been injured and he’s back, so I look at him like any other athlete.”
While Bolt may not have an issue with Gatlin, the fact he denied the iconic Jamaican a golden swansong in the 100m would suggest popular opinion among fans of the sport will not change.
The American has forged a career of remarkable longevity – his win on Saturday reclaimed the title he last won 12 years prior in Helsinki – despite his bans, but they cast a shadow over his history it is unlikely he will ever be allowed to escape.
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