The World Athletics Championships that close tonight were billed as “goodbye”. Goodbye to Usain and Mo, a pair of superstars who carried their sport. Lord knows what athletics will do without them, but that’s for another day. For now it’s just goodbye, but not how we would have wished it.
The plan was for both Mo Farah and Usain Bolt to end their championship careers with a pair of gold medals each from London 2017. Everything looked on track when Farah won an epic 10,000 metres on the opening night, but the effort clearly took its toll.
The first tear in the script appeared when Justin Gatlin won the 100m with Bolt only third and then last night (Saturday) the entire plot went through the shredder. Farah was beaten into second place in the 5,000m and Bolt finished the greatest career in athletics barefoot and limping over the line having broken down on the anchor leg of the 4x100m.
A much-written line over the past few days has been “sport doesn’t do fairytales”, but what is also true is that there is never a good time to call it a day. Bow out on top and there will always be questions as to how much was left in the tank, leave it too long and the curtain comes down in the manner it did for Bolt and Farah.
Farah’s championship career lasted a race too long and Bolt should have called it a day a day when he streaked across the line to win the 4×100 in Rio last year, but there is often something inside the very greatest of sports stars that brings them back for more.
One of the saddest sights of all was Muhammad Ali slumped on his stool at the end of the first round of his fight against Larry Holmes in October 1980. Ali was 38 years old, the grey flecks in his hair dyed black and a perfectly honed physique but, as Pat Putnam wrote in Sports Illustrated, he was “a Ferrari without an engine, a Rolex with the works missing. There was nothing inside.” And that wasn’t even his last fight.
Sixty years ago at the Nurburgring Juan Manuel Fangio won the last of his 24 grands prix victories with what has been described as the greatest drive ever and it clinched his fifth world championship. “I have never driven that quickly before in my life and I don’t think I will ever be able to do it again,” he said at the time. In July of 1958 he came out of retirement to race at the French Grand Prix and finished two-and-a-half minutes behind the winner. Only then did he hang up his driving gloves.
So sport doesn’t do fairytales but the ending isn’t the only part of the story. Bolt and Farah chose their time to depart but not the way it would play out. Like Ali and Fangio they are among the very greatest, so let’s remember the journey and not how it ended.