The script, for the first time in the Jamaican’s career, didn’t go as Usain Bolt planned over the weekend, as the face of athletics clocked a third-placed finish in the 100metre World Championships.
To make matters worse, Justin Gatlin was the sprinter to spoil the party – the ‘wrong’ athlete to gatecrash Bolt’s finale – according to the British public.
The 60,000 supporters clear support in favour of Bolt, and disdain towards Gatlin could not have been more obvious during both the athletes crossing the line and on Sunday evening at the medal ceremony.
With jeers and boos ringing around the stadium, it was a clear expression towards an athlete currently carrying the reputation as somewhat of a villain in the sport; even the IAAF President, Lord Seb Coe, made his feelings clear on the shock victory, claiming it was not “the perfect script”:
“I’m not eulogistic that someone who has served two bans has walked off with one of our glittering prizes,”
Following such animosity towards the American athlete, Gatlin’s father has weighed into the debate by criticising the reception his son has received in his victory:
“He served his ban and he worked his heart out doing what he could. He worked to come back, and he worked his way back to championship form.”
“The fans booing is disrespectful to the sport. The sport has always been here and is going to be here after he leaves. He created a memory that is going to be in people’s minds a long time.”
— Willie Gatlin.
So was this reaction from the British public disrespectful? For a nation who supposedly pride themselves on manners, it would seem the repeated boos was a little out of character for a man who – this time round – beat the great Usain Bolt fair and square over 100 metres.
Lifetime bans in athletics are not a form of punishment. It would supposedly appear ‘too excessive’ in the sport to stand, hence the reason for Gatlin serving an eight-year ban (halved to four years on appeal) for his previous doping.
However, as Michael Johnson pointed to in commentary after the race, the British public did not boo Gatlin after his bronze medal in London 2012.
We didn’t boo because we didn’t care; the result was as the public wanted – Bolt was the winner; the only thing that matters.
It’s this elitism within the sport that’s causing the problem. Johnson reiterated the point that we don’t pay attention to the other dopers; we don’t care if a doper who has served his time finishes ’12th in the discus’.
The public creates this ‘villain’ when he comes good as a clean athlete in the ‘big’ events. What needed to happen is the constant example of this when athletes such as Gatlin were not challenging the great Bolt.
As supporters and followers of the sport, the public – with the help of the media – should make cases in point for not just athletes at the top or competing for the ‘signature’ events. There needs to be more consistency in how ‘cheating’ athletes are represented, and rather than making one individual a villain, it needs to be flagged across every athlete.