Sometimes sport has an unexpected way of smacking you where it hurts.
On Usain Bolt’s farewell night, it did just that as two-time drug cheat Justin Gatlin gatecrashed his party at the London Stadium on Saturday.
The American, booed whenever his face appeared on the giant screen, capitalised on a sluggish start by Bolt to seal his second, legitimate, 100m world title at the age of 35 – 12 years after his first.
Bolt’s chances had gone 30m in, and despite a typically gallant finish, the Jamaican was left to parade around his endearing fans having claimed bronze.
It was not how the fairytale of a legend was supposed to end.
Having emerged through the ashes of a drug-wrecked era in sprinting, of which Gatlin had garnered most headlines, Bolt’s 10-year love affair with success has kept athletics, just about, at the focal point of Olympic sport.
I have proven to the world that I am one of the greatest athletes, I don’t think tonight has changed anything. I have always done my best and I have always tried to uplift the sport in my best ways.Usain Bolt
From the fresh-faced, playful, lightning-waving future star, the Jamaican removes the sport from his shoulders with six individual Olympic gold medals, seven individual world titles and now this one bronze.
Added to that, Bolt has six relay gold medals from major championships, a figure downgraded from seven by the very drug culture he has provided an antithesis to.
“I don’t think there’s going to be another me, no,” said Bolt, after an hour of soaking up unwavering support at the London Stadium. “I’m just a different person. I have shown over the years that I am unique.”
Bolt bows out a member of an elusive pack in the history of sport. Only over the next decades will his legendary status be revealed but few can argue against his name ranking alongside the likes of Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan and Pele.
“That is what I aimed for, to be amongst the greatest,” added Bolt. “To be in amongst those guys is unbelievable. I’ve had some special times.
“I have proven to the world that I am one of the greatest athletes, I don’t think tonight has changed anything. I have always done my best and I have always tried to uplift the sport in my best ways.”
Of course, Bolt had his chance to retire on the top of the winners’ podium following three gold medals at the Rio Olympics 12 months ago.
For whatever reason – sponsorship, film promotion, extending his legendary status – the 30-year-old declined the life of full-time celebrity fame for one more showpiece.
Hope perhaps outweighed the analytics following Bolt’s two qualifying runs as he bemoaned the starting blocks and suffered his first semi-final defeat at a major championships to American Christian Coleman, the 20-year-old silver medallist.
It was the same problem that ultimately blew his moment in the final.
Bolt was left by Coleman, a student and the fastest man in the world this year with a time of 9.82secs, and had a two-metre gap to surmount in the second half of the race.
At that point, Coleman was clear of the dangers around him but Gatlin, in lane eight on the pair’s outside, emerged as the unlikely contender – having struggled for form in 2017 and without shining during the opening rounds.
Bolt grimaced and his lengthy stride closed the gap as the line closed on him. His time of 9.95sec equalled his best for the year, but it was 0.03sec slower than Gatlin and, like in the semi-finals, a neck behind Coleman.
Further back, Reece Prescod gave British fans hope of a new generation with a sparkling performance at his first major championships, finishing seventh after setting a new personal best in the semi-finals.
As Gatlin’s name appeared first on the two giant screens at either end of the London stadium, a stunned silence passed across the 60,000 seats circling him. It was broken by a roar from the American, followed by a silencing finger pressed against his lips.
This was a moment athletics dreaded. Lord only knows what IAAF chief Seb Coe must have felt as the two big screens flashed up.
For Gatlin, the pantomime villain of the sport, this was a moment of resurrection and reconciliation. The 35-year-old has consistently contested his innocence and right to run despite twice falling foul of doping rules.
Gracious in victory, an emotional Gatlin knew his achievement was not the crowd’s will. After embracing Bolt, he let his rival soak up the adoration and gave up his right to a lap of honour.
“It’s still Usain Bolt’s night,” said Gatlin, who has no intention of retiring. “He has done so much for the sport. Win or lose, he’s the man. The first thing I did when I crossed the line, I paid homage to him. Bolt is an electrifying character who has run sizzling times, mind-blowing times. I have nothing but respect for him.”