LONDON — Usain Bolt lost. Mo Farah lost. So what?
A mesmerizing show like Saturday’s is all that is great about track and field. Stars. Action galore. A roaring and appreciative crowd in a landmark venue.
Awesome. Truly awesome.
The sun comes up Sunday on a new day, and with it the close of these 2017 IAAF world championships. Bask if you want in the glow if you are given to sentimentality. The realist knows that when the party is over, it is over, and on the track the Bolt and Farah show is over.
One of the reasons track and field has consistently failed for years to reach a more mainstream audience is that, despite the sport’s incredibly rich collection of personalities — and with them, plots and subplots — fans are mostly shut out from any access to any of that.
Organizers here took a first step in lowering the barrier. Fans could peer down from the 100 level at Olympic Stadium at the warm-up track below.
Now: what if? All that action Saturday. What if it track and field got an NFL-style HBO-like “Hard Knocks” treatment? What if it got a miniseries-like serialization in the weeks leading up to the championships? Or the production values — video quick cuts that go with a driving music backbeat — that are the currency on Instagram of any college football team?
The issue, as ever, is not the crowd track and field already has. Its diehards already know who, for instance, Jan Zelezny is. (If you don’t, see below.)
The issue is reaching the casual fan. Disclaimer: it’s always dangerous to extrapolate from anecdotal experience but here was Javier, a 20-year-old from Malaga, Spain, working at a sushi restaurant in Canary Wharf, asking a guest about a championships credential: “Is that the thing that’s going on at the stadium? They have triathlon, right?”
For all those who say, time and again and with some credibility, that the sport’s base is rooted in Europe, the task is to reach all the 20-year-olds in sushi bars, or wherever, in Huntington Beach, Overland Park and Long Branch, and all points in between.
Further, this is not cultural hegemony but market reality: No. 1 is the United States. California alone has a bigger GDP than France. This is where the action must be, and this is why, respectful of tradition but with an eye toward innovation and 21st-century story-telling, the sport has to take its next steps.
It’s also why there’s so much potential because, as Saturday illustrated, the stories can come flying, one after the other, fast and furious.
Off the track: American Tianna Bartoletta, the Rio 2016 long jump gold medalist, took to Facebook to announce that the bronze she won Friday night in the event was her “most special medal” ever. Why? “Because just three short months ago I had to run away from my own home … to give myself a chance at having a life and the love I deserved — one that didn’t involve fear or fighting, threats and abuse … It was worth it.” She offered no other details.
Not to be unduly intrusive but — imagine if the world had known about this story for the past three months. Can you imagine the off-the-charts rooting interest that would have created here in Tianna Bartoletta?
On the track:
In what he had said is his final competitive race, Bolt, 30, crumpled to the ground, in Lane 5, as Great Britain surprisingly defeated the United States in the men’s 4×1 relay, the Brits in 37.47, the Americans in 37.52. Japan got third in 38.04.
Pretty much no one saw the Brits winning this race. Jamaicans? Sure? Americans? Yes.
“You were here, you saw it, it’s true,” the stadium announcer told fans afterward.
The Jamaicans threw out Omar McLeod (110 hurdles winner), Julian Forte (ran a 9.99 here in the heats), Yohan Blake (2011 worlds 100 winner) and Bolt.
The Americans countered with Mike Rodgers (14th best on the all-time performer list, at 9.85), Justin Gatlin (100 gold here), Jaylen Bacon (fourth at U.S. nationals) and Christian Coleman (100 silver here).
The Americans ran in Lane 4, next to the Jamaicans. Coleman got the stick and drove for home.
But out in Lane 7, Britain’s Nethaneel Mitchell-Blake was getting the stick, too. He and Coleman raced each other stride for stride until, nearing the line, Coleman stumbled maybe just a bit.
That was it.
Afterward, Gatlin said, referring to a string of prior American relay disasters well-known within the track world, “My whole thing was making sure we had a bond, synergy and we got the stick around. We did that. I think it’s a great foundation to build on. The last few years we’ve bobbled sticks or been DQ’d and to be able to finish the night off with a great run, smooth execution all around the track, I think that we can consistently get on the podium from now on.”
While the Americans and Brits looked at the scoreboard, meanwhile, everyone else was gasping at Bolt, lying on the track. Attendants came out, with a wheelchair. After a moment or two, he got up, limping, and crossed the finish line over the big “5” lane marker.
The Jamaican team doctor, Kevin Jones, said later, “It’s cramp in his left hamstring but a lot of pain is from disappointment from losing the race. The last three weeks have been hard for him, you know. We hope for the best for him.”
The last three weeks have been hard? Why hasn’t that been on camera for fans to see?
Maybe Bolt — who was in fourth, maybe fifth, when he crumpled to the track — really did cramp up. Gosh, though, that was a quick recovery. He didn’t even need to see his familiar German doctor.
And thus ended his racing career — purportedly.
Gatlin has consistently said he believes Bolt will be back:
“I’m going to win my million dollars,” he said late Saturday. “He’s coming back in a couple years. He’ll be ready. He has a passion for the sport. He loves the fans and they love him. He loves the sport too much to walk away. He’s a showman.”
In the meantime, as Gatlin said, “You can’t let this championship define what he’s done in the past. He has done amazing things. He’s still the man, you know.”
On tap Saturday for Farah, 34, was a fifth global double-double — or, to put it another way, a triple double of sorts, wins in both the 5k and 10k at two Olympics and three world championships.
Farah has announced his intent to switch to marathon racing after one more 5k, at the Zurich Diamond League meet on August 24.
Farah had finished second in Thursday’s 5k heat, behind Ethiopia’s Yomif Kejelcha, then said, “The 10k did take a lot out of me and I’m a little beaten up, but I’m OK.”
With about 600 meters to go, he launched his patented kick. Three Ethiopians went with him. On this night, one, Muktar Edris, with excellent finishing speed himself, particularly in a relatively slow race like this one, won in 13:32.79. Farah took silver, in 13:33.32. American Paul Chelimo — who had fallen in the heats and had to scramble just to qualify — took third, with a 52-second last lap, in 13:33.3.
At the finish line, Edris did the Mo-Bot — Farah’s signature gesture. Edris is the new man. Now it’s the E-Bot.
“They had the game plan — one of them was going to sacrifice themselves,” Farah said. “That’s what they did tonight, and the better man won on the day. I gave it all, I didn’t have a single bit left at the end.”
The two other Ethiopians who went with Farah at 600 finished fourth and fifth: Kejelcha in 13:33.51 and 17-year-old Selemon Barega in 13:35.34.
For his part, Chelimo said, “I’m bandaged here and there and I got spiked. It’s been tough, you know. There’s not much more I can ask for. Mo is leaving. Someone has to take over now. I”m taking over next year — 2019, I am after that gold.”
Let’s get it on.
But first that women’s 4×1 relay.
In Saturday’s morning heats, the U.S. team, with Felix — like Gatlin, on the second leg — had run to a world-leading 41.84.
This was without Tori Bowie, the 100 winner here Sunday. In winning, Bowie had tumbled — not crumpled — to the track. That fall had been so hard that she withdrew from the 200. Bowie’s recovery the past few days: wouldn’t that make for a must-see story in how to get better, and fast?
Bowie, running anchor, grabbed the stick from Morolake Akinosun — the pass seemed very, very close to being out of the zone — and sped across the line in 41.82. Second: the Brits, in 42.12. Third, Jamaica, 42.19.
Math fun: that relay medal made for Felix’s 15th in her world championships career. She now has one more than Bolt and the great Jamaican female sprinter Merlene Ottey, both with 14. Felix now has 10 career world championship golds, most-ever for a female.
Felix likely will run the 4×400 relay Sunday, meaning a chance for No. 16.
British math fun: Farah’s silver and the two relays lifted the home team’s medal count for the meet to — well, four. Two belong to Farah. The other two: the two Saturday relays.
Heading into Sunday, the U.S. leads the medal count with 27. Kenya is second, with eight.
The decathlon had since 2012 been the province of one guy, the American Ashton Eaton. He had won the last two Olympic and world titles.
Without Eaton, who retired after his last gold medal, in Rio last summer, France’s Kevin Mayer, the Rio silver medalist, took over here in London, winning with 8768 points.
The women’s high jump went to Mariyia Lasitskene, who cleared 2.03 meters, or 6 feet, 8 inches. When she won this event at the worlds in Beijing in 2015, she competed for Russia. Here, amid the doping scandal in Russia, she was an “Authorized Neutral Athlete.”
Yulia Levchenko of Ukraine took silver at 2.01, or 6-7 . Bronze went to Poland’s Kamila Licwinko, at 1.99, 6-6 1/4.
As track and field imagines its future, picture this: the women’s high jump in front of the to-be-opened George Lucas ‘Star Wars’ Museum in LA, or in Red Square in Moscow, or Tiananmen Square in Beijing, or Champ de Mars in Paris (site of Olympic beach volleyball in 2024). Pick it. Women’s high jump sells itself.
In the men’s javelin, Germany’s Thomas Röhler had uncorked a monster throw to start the 2017 season, 93.9 meters — or 308 feet, 1 inch — in May at the Diamond League meet in Doha, Qatar. That made him the second-best performer all time, behind world record-holder Jan Zelezny of the Czech Republic.
Röhler is the Rio 2016 javelin gold medalist.
Wrap your mind around that distance. An NFL football field is 100 yards, or 300 feet. This guy threw a spear from end zone to end zone, with room to spare.
Röhler’s spot as No. 2 performer lasted, oh, about two months.
On July 11, his German teammate, Johannes Vetter, went 94.44, or 309-8. Only Zelezny’s four best throws have gone farther. Vetter was now the No. 2 all-time performer, Röhler 3.
Think of all the fun ways there could, would and should be to compare Vetter and Röhler to whatever NFL quarterback you might want to name.
In qualifying here Thursday, in his first throw, Vetter let loose with a 91.2, or 299-2.
On Saturday night, Vetter won with a throw of “only” 89.89, or 294-11. Two Czech throwers took second and third: Jakub Vadlejch and Petr Frydrych. Zelezny coaches both.
Finally, the women’s 100-meter hurdles, a race with enough backstory that it all but deserves its own cable-TV channel.
The race was essentially the United States against the world: an Australian along with a German, Dutch and Belorussian hurdler against four Americans, Dawn Harper-Nelson, Chrstina Manning, Nia Ali and Keni Harrison.
In her first world championships, in Beijing in 2015, Harrison did not reach the final. Last year, she inexplicably finished sixth at the U.S. Trials and thus did not make the team that went to Rio — where the U.S. women went 1-2-3, Brianna Rollins-Ali-Kristi Castlin.
Rollins is not here in London — she is serving a one-year suspension from competition, announced in April, backdated to last December, for missing three doping tests, one of which occurred when she was visiting the White House with the U.S. Olympic team. She had failed to update the computer system about her whereabouts.
After finishing sixth at the Trials in Eugene, Oregon, meanwhile, Harrison came here to London last July, before the 2016 Games, and, on this same track, ran 12.2 — a world record that broke the 12.21 run by Bulgaria’s Yordanka Donkova in 1988. Certain marks set in the 1980s in women’s track and field were considered by many unreachable. That was one of them.
In the third of Friday’s three semifinals, Harrison clipped the first hurdle, then staggered to a 12.86. She ended up being the eighth of eight qualifiers for Saturday’s final.
Harper-Nelson is the Beijing 2008 gold medalist and London 2012 silver medalist. Like Harrison, she did not make the Rio team — the twist that she was eliminated in the Trials semifinals. Here, she led the four Americans through the semis, with a season’s best 12.63; Manning through in 12.71, Ali in 12.79.
Pearson is the London 2012 gold medalist. She spent the past two years recovering from a series of injuries, including a broken wrist suffered in a gruesome fall at the fifth hurdle in the June 2015 100 hurdles Diamond League race in Rome.
In the semifinals, Pearson ran to the fastest time, 12.53.
In the finals, it was no contest, Pearson running away with it, in 12.59, sprinting past the finish line to do a hop-hop-hop of happiness by the photographers snapping away. Harper-Nelson ran a season-best 12.63 for second, Germany’s Pamela Dutkiewicz 12.72 for third. Harrison took fourth, 12.74.
“I’m still young,” Harrison said. “This was my first world final. People forget that because I’m the world record-holder. They expect me to be winning all the time. But I’m pleased to be in my first world final and have learned a lot.”
“I don’t know what to say — that was just incredible,” Pearson said.
All day. And late into the night.