The Guardian, by Richard Williams
IAAF’s sellout to Qatar was the first leg of a double which sees the 2021 follow-up take place in Eugene, Oregon, home of Nike
When Adam Gemili walked towards his blocks in lane seven for his heat of the men’s 200m at the IAAF world championships in Doha on Sunday night, he looked up and waved to friends and family in the grandstand. They would not have been hard to spot among a crowd estimated at around 1,000 scattered around a stadium built for 40,000.
On perhaps the worst weekend for athletics in the sport’s long history there seemed no end to the ways being found to insult the people who actually do the running, jumping and throwing. All the poisons to have entered the sport’s systems in recent times were pooling in the echoing emptiness of the air-conditioned Khalifa stadium.
Later in the evening that same 1,000 or so watched Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, the queen of Jamaica, win the women’s 100m ahead of Dina Asher-Smith, who was taking the first individual medal for a British female sprinter since Kathy Cook in 1983. Nothing can stir the blood as profoundly and sometimes unexpectedly as athletics, and this was a wonderful race containing all the ingredients required for a memorable final of a blue-riband event.
The 32-year-old Jamaican, a little ball of pure speed trailing her multicoloured hair like the tail of a psychedelic comet, was winning her fourth world title at the distance, to go with her Olympic gold medals in Beijing and London. Later she gave interviews while cuddling her son Zyon, whose birth in 2017 kept her away from the track for a year.
Trailing the woman described by Michael Johnson as the greatest woman sprinter of all time by barely a tenth of a second, Asher-Smith is nine years younger and was giving notice that, barring mishaps, even more impressive achievements await as she matures and gathers experience. To look at these women in their moment of triumph one could easily imagine them to be representing a sport at the zenith of its popularity.
And yet the 38,000 or so empty seats told a very different story: a tale of sickness, corruption, warped priorities and vested interests. That depressing message was only italicised when the lights dimmed before the 100m final, giving way to a hideous Vegas-style son-et-lumière, intended to impress us with the importance of the race we were about to watch. We already knew that, thank you very much. It would have been better to give these amazing women a full house to cheer them on and to award their lap of honour the reception it deserved.
The way to sell athletics to a new generation is not to wrap it up in something resembling the staging of the latest worldwide tour from Rihanna or Taylor Swift. The secret of the most beautiful of sports is to be found in its simplicity and humanity. The public enjoyed the sight of Usain Bolt throwing a shape before and after a victory but it was incidental to his global appeal. What people really loved was the sight of a man sprinting faster than anyone had done before: so basic, so elemental, so pure.
The pollution of that purity is something athletics has been fighting against for decades, and in particular from the day of the 1988 men’s Olympic 100m final: the one that gave its title to Richard Moore’s book, The Dirtiest Race in History. Six of the eight finalists that day in Seoul – and not just the disqualified winner on the track, Ben Johnson – were subsequently implicated in doping scandals. On Sunday night in Doha that shadow, now more than 30 years old, dimmed the spotlight falling on the men’s 100m medal ceremony. The man on the top step of the podium, Christian Coleman, recently escaped a ban for missing three drug tests on a technicality, while the doping history of Justin Gatlin, the runner-up, is too familiar to bear repeating. It was as if Bolt had never happened.
Athletics is a resilient sport and there have been cherishable moments in the opening days of these world championships, as there always are on such occasions. There was Angelica Bengtsson of Sweden feeling a pole snap as she went into the take-off for her vault, then getting up and grabbing another one and setting off again to clear the bar. There was Braima Dabo of Guinea‑Bissau helping the heat‑stricken Jonathan Busby of Aruba to finish their 5,000m race, both far behind the winners. And the great Allyson Felix, another new mother, returning to win her 12th world title in the inaugural mixed 4x400m, itself a good entertainment which may or may not be destined for a permanent place in the programme.
But then one remembers that two years after the lights go out in Doha the next IAAF world championships will take place in Eugene, Oregon, notable in terms of world athletics only for being the town where Nike was founded and has its world headquarters. Nike, the running shoe company who gave Sebastian Coe the contract that he was so loth to forfeit when he became president of the IAAF four years ago in succession to the man he once described as the sport’s “spiritual leader”, the disgraced Lamine Diack. Nike, the company whose negotiations with Felix over a new contract when she became pregnant started a battle over fair payment for sportswomen during the maternity period.
The award of the championships to Eugene was made without transparency in any respect save that of the motives of those who also decided that it was right to hold a marathon in the heat of Qatar and were rewarded on Friday night with the sight of runners being taken to hospital in wheelchairs. One day the successors to those athletes will get the sport – and the audience – they deserve.