Too late, this time, to spark the sort of great British gold rush that ultimately occurred at the global gathering for which this arena was built, another ‘Super Saturday’ of sorts served as a salvage operation for British Athletics at these World Championships.
The capital ‘A’ is important in this instance because the preceding eight days could hardly have served the sport as a whole and most particularly in these parts, any better.
The governing body had, though, been coming under pressure for, in the context of the vast investment it receives from the public purse, the lack of home success to that point. Whereas, then, it had been gold all the way on the glorious afternoon and evening in the summer of 2012, officialdom was ready, quite literally, to settle for any sort of silverware or, for that matter, bronzeware.
If Mo Farah’s first defeat in a major final for six years was a disappointment, then, there was also some relief that in earning the only previous medal the entire team had won, in the 10,000 metres more than a week earlier, he had not taken so much out of himself that he allowed any more than one of the formidable team of three Ethiopians to beat him. That he once again managed to hold off Paul Chelimo, as he had when the American took silver in Rio, was something of a bonus in that context. Farah’s global medal winning career had, then, ended as it began with gold and silver at a World Championships, albeit a reversal of what happened when he was edged out in the 10,000 metres in Daegu in 2011 before that first triumph in the 5000 metres there. Six World Championship golds and two silver to accompany his four golds from his double double Olympic successes. A magnificent haul by any standards.
To that point, though, his medals here, in the absence of fellow ‘Super Saturday’ stars jess Ennis-Hill and Greg Rutherford as a result, respectively, of retirement and injury, only served to make the failure of others all the more conspicuous. There had been umpteen near misses, most notably Callum Hawkins, Laura Muir, Kyle Langford and Nathaneel Mitchell-Blake all suffering agonising fourth place finishes, while even as Farah was running Katarina Johnson-Thompson – as she also had in the pentathlon – and Morgan Lake could not quite jump high enough to reach the podium. However a medal target of six to eight, set in conjunction with funding that makes athletics the envy of many other sports that do not have anything like as many opportunities to acquire the medals that administrators and politicians crave was still a long way off
In this sport contested by so many individuals British Athletics was coming up short, but was saved by exceptional teamwork. The women led the way, Asha Philip, Desiree Henry, Dina Asher-Smith and Darryl Neita combining better than anyone could have hoped they might in claiming a silver medal as they chased in a pretty much uncatchable US team and they duly celebrated as rapturously as they were entitled to. While the semi-final qualifying times had suggested their male counterparts were also capable of getting onto the podium, there was no real thought to the possibility that the women’s team’s silver might only be an appetiser.
Then came that tumultuous men’s sprint relay that was seen coming by none of us, not least the American team, half of which comprised the two fastest individuals at these championships in Justin Gatlin and Christian Coleman and the Jamaican team, three of whom, including former world champion Yohan Blake, had the task of setting things up for the man whose departure from the sport had attracted even more attention than anyone else.
Those who ascribe more to karma than to belief in mortal demigods might reasonably wonder whether Usain Bolt has paid a price at these championships for a lack of respect shown, not by him but by the less reasonable among his faithful followers, to the long time rival who may never match or surpass the times the world’s fastest ever man has set, but has replaced him as the reigning world 100 metres champion. The jeering directed towards Justin Gatlin throughout these championships has been ignorant and distasteful and those responsible, in contrast to the dignified behaviour of Bolt himself, have probably deserved the disappointment of not seeing one of the greatest athletes of all time at his best.
Not that there was any absence of drama involving the great showman of course as, straining to make up ground, Bolt suffered a hamstring cramp that saw him attempt to pull up halfway to the line, then somersault onto the track on which he acquired iconic status when defending his 100 metres, 200 metres and 4×100 metres Olympic titles in 2012 before dismissing the wheelchair offered to him and hirpling away under his own steam.
The US team had meanwhile looked to have been smart in placing Gatlin on the second leg, separated from the man who has so often beaten him before the gun has gone off (it seemed no coincidence that Gatlin’s individual win was from an outside lane, as far removed from Bolt’s aura as he could be), leaving Christian Coleman, a youngster who had shown no fear in his encounters with Bolt in the semi-final and final of the 100 metres, to deal with the direct confrontation.
In the semi-final Coleman had, too, received the baton with a lead over a British team that was unchanged, so could surely be discounted. Facing a team of collectively faster individuals, however, their near perfectly executed, British record smashing run as they circumnavigated the arena in 37.47 seconds, was an exhibition of relay running. That it was produced by men from a nation with a history of dropped batons and ill-timed exchanges only made it all the sweeter as Mitchell-Blake took the baton from Danny Talbot with a lead initially built by CJ Ujah and Adam Gemili that he just managed to make count, unaware of the drama unfolding behind him. A gold, but in a way more importantly, a third medal on the night and fourth in all at these Championships had been secured in stunning style. British Athletics plc was back in business with its investors.