LONDON — No matter if it's sports or what journalists call hard news, all young reporters learn early on a truism. Whether it’s a big court case, a political race or a major sports event like these 2017 IAAF track and field world championships or an NFL Super Bowl, there are always — always — at least two storylines.
There’s the action itself.
And then there’s what's happening around it.
With the 2017 worlds nearing the halfway mark, it’s entirely unclear whether they seem destined to be remembered for the track and field itself, which truly has been remarkable if not historic.
Or for everything else — which, among other things, has shown a spotlight on the sanctimonious righteousness and hypocrisy of the British press, a corresponding and appalling lack of good manners by the crowds in connection with the U.S. 100-meter gold medalist Justin Gatlin, a public-health mini-crisis that if it had happened last summer in Rio would doubtlessly be cause for wholesale reflection on quality of life in the developing world and, then, to switch gears, the presentation of the track and field itself, which is, for the IAAF, at best, a work in progress and begs an essential question:
Is a track and field world championship in 2017 a live event in a stadium — or a television product?
As for the races as well as the throws and jumps, and even this recap will hardly do justice to how truly awesome, especially for track geeks, the first half of this meet has been:
— Mo Farah’s 10k win last Friday called on every bit of the double-double Olympic distance champion’s physical and emotional will. Seven guys finished under 27 minutes, the 34-year-old Farah winning in a world-lead 26:49.51 to hold back 20-year-old Joshua Cheptegei of Uganda, who finished just 43-hundredths of a second back.
Already, this men’s 10k is being compared to some of the greatest ever, including the Sydney 2000 Olympic 10k, when Ethiopia’s Haile Gereselassie out-dueled Kenya’s Paul Tergat down the stretch for gold. The winning margin: nine-hundreths of a second.
— Gatlin beat Bolt. Christian Coleman beat Bolt. Gatlin 9.92, Coleman 9.94, Bolt 9.95.
Already, this men’s 100 is being called arguably the greatest men’s ever. It was Bolt’s last individual 100. And he lost. To the same guy who had beaten him the last time had lost — four years before, in Rome.
— Add to the short-list of all-time races: Monday night’s women’s 1500, won by Kenya’s Faith Kipyegon in 4:02.59.
The field included the world-record holder (Ethiopia’s Genzebe Dibaba), 2017 world leader (Holland’s Sifan Hassan), 2016 Olympic champions at 1500 meters (Kipyegon) and 800 meters (South Africa’s Caster Semenya), and Rio 1500 bronze medalist (American Jenny Simpson, also 2011 world champion in the 1500).
Simpson, finding space along the rail, took silver, just 17-hundredths behind Kipyegon. On the outside, Semenya got third, 14-hundredths behind Simpson.
Just seven-hundredths back of Semenya: Britain’s Laura Muir, fourth.
— With the political and economic situation in her country volatile, Venezuela’s 21-year-old Yulimar Rojas won the women’s triple jump, her winning leap 14.91 meters, or 48 feet-11 inches, just two centimeters, about three-quarters of an inch, better than the longtime champion, Colombia’s Catherine Ibarguen.
It was Venezuela’s first-ever world track and field title, and it came just one day Robeilys Peinado took bronze in the women’s pole vault.
“What great pride to see the victory of our Yulimar Rojas, a glorious athlete of the golden generation,” tweeted Venezuela president Nicolas Máduro. “Congratulations on your medal!”
— American Tori Bowie won the women’s 100, falling across the line in 10.85, just one-hundredth in front of Marie-Josee Ta Lou of Ivory Coast. It marked the first time since 2005 Americans had won both the men’s and women’s 100s at the worlds (Gatlin, Lauryn Williams).
— Amy Cragg took bronze in the marathon, the first American to win a worlds medal since Marianne Dickerson in 1983, the very first IAAF worlds.
— Mason Finley took bronze in the discus, the first American worlds medalist since Anthony Washington won the 1999 worlds, and only the third U.S. medalist in history. Finley took third place using a borrowed disc; his personal competition disc broke during qualifying, when a competitor had used it.
— Evan Jager won the first-ever medal by an American man at the world championships in the 3,000-meter steeplechase on Tuesday night, a bronze, 8:14:12. Kenya’s Conselsus Kipruto won gold in a hard-charging and theatrical last lap, 8:14.12, Soufiane Elbakkali of Morocco silver in 8:14.49
— In the men’s 110-meter hurdles, Jamaica’s Omar McLeod repeated his Rio 2016 victory; Russia’s Sergey Shubenko, running here as an “Authorized Neutral Athlete,” got second; and Hungary’s Bálazs Baji, third. In world championships history, Hungary previously had won 11 medals — eight in the throws, two in the combined events, one in the pole vault. Incredibly, Baji’s bronze in the hurdles marked Hungary’s first-ever medal on the track.
The American Aries Merritt, the 2012 Olympic champion and world-record holder, took fifth, less than two years after kidney transplant surgery. Just think about that.
“I’m just happy still to be part it,” Merritt said afterward.
All good. So good.
And yet …
— Consider Monday night’s program. It started at 6:30 p.m. local time with the heats of the men’s 200 meters; the last race, that women's 1500, didn’t end until just before 10 p.m. That’s essentially three and a half hours. If you are the parents of elementary school-age kids, who are you kidding? No way.
Beyond which, there were four finals but really only two with concrete action. The first two took, literally, hours — women’s hammer and women’s triple jump. The other two, the men’s 110 hurdles and the women’s 1500, were the last two events of the night — meaning you had to wait all night to see an event that, practically speaking, counted.
Tuesday night was only marginally better. Yes, it started at 7:20 p.m. instead of 6:30 p.m. There were five finals with two, women’s javelin and men’s pole vault, winding along for a long time. The other three — men’s 3,000 steeplechase, then the men's 800 and men's 400, came one after another, bang-bang-bang, after 9 p.m., the 400 about 9:50 p.m.
The steeple started at 9:11 p.m., with the best five guys left in the pole vault. As China’s Xue Changrui went for a lifetime best, a first jump at 5.89 meters, 19-3 3/4, the steeple pack trotted by. Xue missed. The pack moved along. Whatever.
How long can the steeplechase stay on the worlds program? The hammer throw? The race walk? Pick an event, or for that matter events, because something has to give: 44 individual medal events (48 in all, including relays) is too many.
Start the howling now from all those with special interests for their event. Understood. But 44 events is too many at a worlds, and young people are tuning out.
Same problem, different execution:
The finalists for Monday’s men’s sprint hurdles final were introduced via sparkly fireworks, their names splashed across the big screen. They ran out of the tunnel and onto the track. Yay!
Then — nothing.
For four minutes, maybe longer, the guys stood around, fidgeting in front of the blocks because the TVs had turned to the finals of the women’s triple jump. Then — the cameras went back to the hurdlers, introducing them one-by-one in their lanes. Then, and only then, did they settle into their blocks for the race.
Back to the central question: is a track meet a made-for-TV event at which the stadium and the audience are props, or is the main focus supposed to be what happens on the ground? Are the two reconcilable?
And then …
— The boos inside Olympic Stadium for Gatlin, every time he raced and even when he got his medal.
— This kind of thing, from radio host Garry Richardson on his influential BBC 5 Live “Sportsweek” show, speaking Sunday with IAAF president Seb Coe: “Is this the worst result ever for the sport of athletics?” Richardson, again to Coe, referring to the medals ceremony: “If you can, will you try to avoid Justin Gatlin?” And: “The medals ceremony this evening — it’s going to be embarrassing. Would you urge people to just be silent? To turn away?” (Coe: “We’re not thought police here.”)
One more exchange:
Richardson: "Some people might say that if Gatlin had anything about him, he’d actually bump into you today and say, look, this is going to be very, very embarrassing, send my gold medal to me in the post."
Coe: "I don’t expect that, and I think it is highly unlikely."
Richardson: "It would be good probably if he did that. Do you agree?"
Coe: "I’m not going to go down that road, Garry. It’s a medals ceremony. I think athletes have to make judgments themselves. I think that, you know, the one lesson in all this and this is why it is so important that we maintain our education programs, because bad, poor decisions that are made individually and sometimes with the collusion and knowledge of people at formative moments in the athletes’ careers that should have guided them better has left a lot of the athletes in the position they find themselves in today. That’s not an excuse. But it is a reality, that he worked with a coach who is now out of the sport and should remain out of the sport. And, you know, we have to absolutely make sure that we do everything we possibly can to get young athletes and a generation of coaches to understand that it is possible to go from an 11-year-child on a playground onto a rostrum, and to do it clean. And if you don’t, there are very, very big consequences, and we have as a sport to let the clean athletes know, as we have and I think we have demonstrated by the tough decisions my sport has made that, frankly, no other sport has been prepared to make in the last year: we have to let them know we are in their corner. And I am non-negotiable on this. But, you know, we are also bound by codes and the legality and the challenges that people in all walks of life take to court."
As if Richardson’s point of view wasn’t enough, there’s this display ad, which ran Tuesday on pages 18 and 19 of the Times of London:
Reached by email, a spokeswoman for the Times declined to comment.
Gatlin, according to representatives, assuredly did not authorize the use of his likeness — which, incidentally, features the Team USA marks as well — for commercial use.
Yet the staid Times of London thought sassing Gatlin an appropriate way to leverage newspaper sales. On what grounds?
Botswana’s Isaac Makwala, one of the world’s best, withdrew Monday from the men’s 200-meter heats after getting sick in the stadium medical room, the Guardian reported. On Tuesday, the IAAF said he was being withdrawn — whether he wanted to, or not — from the night’s 400 final, where he was a medal favorite, after he was “diagnosed with an infectious disease …”
The IAAF also said:
“These procedures are recommended by Public Health England and were clearly explained to the teams in writing … on Sunday (6 Aug) and in person to the Botswanan delegation, a member of which was present with many other representatives of teams at a meeting that took place at the Guoman Tower Hotel on Sunday.”
In all, according to a flurry of news accounts citing public health officials, about 30 people connected to the championships — athletes and support staff — have been infected in what was described as a suspected outbreak of novovirus.
Nine people were still affected by Tuesday afternoon, the local organizing committee reportedly said.
A focus of the inquiry: the Tower hotel, near Tower Bridge, where the Botswana, German, Canadian, Irish and Puerto Rican teams were staying. The hotel declared it was “not the source of the illness,” according to a report in the Olympic-themed website Inside the Games.
Without the 30-year-old Makwala, South Africa’s van Niekerk, already the favorite, suddenly became also the oldest guy in the final. He is 25. He was also the only guy who took part in the 400 either last summer in Rio or at the 2015 worlds in Beijing — winner both times, world-record setter (43.03) in Rio.
Anticipating the 200 double, van Niekerk ran an easy 43.98 for the win.
To the federation's credit, its statement also said this: "The IAAF is very sorry that the hard work and talent of Isaac Makwala won’t be on display tonight but we have to think of the welfare of all athletes."
Just imagine, meanwhile, what The Times’ editorial staff would be writing if a public health, ah, situation like this had happened last year in Rio.
Is someone now going to go on the radio and declare that this is very, very embarrassing?