Just when you thought these drama-laden IAAF World Championships London 2017 could hardly get any more surreal, up pops the sight of a British runner, born in the Borough of Newham, the district of the London Stadium, but raised partly in Jamaica, upstaging the fastest man in history in his farewell race.
In fact, Usain Bolt was in thick of the home straight theatrics, though not in the manner any of us might have expected. The Lightning Bolt was struck down by a severe hamstring cramp some 30 metres into the final leg of the men’s 4x100m, left hopping in agony as Londoner Nethaneel Mitchell-Blake slugged it out with Christian Coleman of the USA.
In truth, even before Bolt was cruelly smitten he would have had his work cut out to fight his way into the gold medal picture, having taken the baton from Yohan Blake with the Jamaicans some three metres down on the flying Britons and battling US in an isolated third.
The crowd, who had gathered in the hope of beholding a golden finale, hardly had time to emit a collective gasp as Mitchell-Blake, fourth in the 200m final on Thursday, stunningly edged ahead of Coleman, the 100m silver medallist, in the final few metres.
When the victory was confirmed on the giant screen – first Great Britain in 37.47, a European record and world lead, second the USA in 37.52 and third Japan in 38.04 – the stadium erupted in celebration, reminiscent of that other Super Saturday for track and field in the UK, when Jessica Ennis-Hill, Greg Rutherford and Mo Farah all won home golds at the 2012 Olympics in the same arena.
Bolt lay on the track clutching his leg, refusing the offer of a wheelchair from medics before nobly hobbling across the finish line. For all of his stellar achievements, it book-ended a professional life in the fast lane that started in similar fashion, when he limped across the line last in the 200m final on his World Championships debut as an injury-prone 18-year-old in Helsinki back in the mists of 2005.
For Mitchell-Blake and his British teammates – fellow Londoner Chijindu Ujah, who got off to a cracking start, London-born Adam Gemili, who ran a storming second leg, and Danny Talbot, who flew round the final turn – it was a stunningly executed performance and a truly famous victory.
It inevitably brought back memories of Athens in 2004, when Mark Lewis-Francis held off Maurice Greene to claim an unlikely Olympic victory over the US. The only other global senior championship men’s 4x100m relay success for Britain was at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm.
There was, however, a difference to Athens. Jason Gardener, Marlon Devonish, Darren Campbell and Lewis-Francis won there in 38.07. The combined efforts of the inspired Ujah, Gemili, Talbot and Mitchell-Blake, a new Fab Four for Britain, added up to 37.47 – a massive 0.26 inside the European record established by the British team of Gardener, Campbell, Devonish and Dwain Chambers as silver medal winners behind the USA at the 1999 IAAF World Championships in Seville.
“I’m a world champion…wow!” exclaimed Mitchell-Blake, who moved to Jamaica when he was 13 and spent five years living there before moving to study and train in the United States at Louisiana State University.
“This is the best feeling in the world,” said Gemili, who missed out on a place in the individual sprints because of injury. “Thanks so much for everyone who came out to support us and had the belief.”
“This is what we came here to do,” said Talbot. “Deep down, we knew we could win.”
And so, yet another World Championships script was ripped up and consigned to the London Stadium dustbin.
Bolt had anchored Jamaica to victory in each of the previous six global championship 4x100m finals, stretching back to the 2009 World Championships – with an average winning margin of 0.49. This time, with 110m hurdles champion Omar McLeod on the lead off leg, Julian Forte on leg two and 2011 world 100m champion Blake on three, they were far from the polished model that scorched to the 2012 Olympic title in 36.84, the world record time.
“It’s cramp in Usain’s left hamstring but a lot of pain is from disappointment from losing the race,” said Jamaica’s team doctor Kevin Jones. “The last three weeks have been hard for him, you know. We hope for the best for him.”
McLeod placed the disappointment in wider perspective. “It just happened,” he said. “Usain Bolt’s name will always live on.”
And so it will – long after a planned farewell lap of honour at the end of the final day of action on Sunday, a circuit that may need to be completed with vehicular assistance.
Despite his annual battle to overcome injury, mostly connected to the scoliosis that has troubled him since his youth, Bolt has bagged a Fort Knox collection of gold: three each at 100m at Olympic Games and IAAF World Championships; three at 200m at Olympics and four at IAAF World Championships; plus two 4x100m gold medals at the Olympics and four at the IAAF World Championships.
That adds up to an awful lot of bling: 19 global championship gold medals. Then there are the superhuman world records he set on the bright blue track of the Olympiastadion in Berlin at the 2009 IAAF World Championships: 9.58 for 100m and 19.19 for 200m.
He has come an awful long way, and very, very quickly, since he won the 200m as a gangly 15-year-old at the 2002 World Junior Championships at the National Stadium in Kingston – so riddled with nerves amid the cacophony made by the home crowd that he tied his spikes on the wrong feet while preparing for the start.
Fifteen years on, all of that youthful talent has been fulfilled and the Lightning Bolt has run his last. We should savour Sunday’s lap of honour while we can. We are unlikely to see quite his like again.
Simon Turnbull for the IAAF