Justin Gatlin ruined Usain Bolt’s farewell party when the 35-year-old American won the world 100 metres title on Saturday, beating the Jamaican superstar into third and sparking a chorus of boos from a London crowd unhappy with his doping past.
What was meant to be a glorious celebration of the departure of the sport’s greatest showman turned into a condemnation of its biggest pantomime villain as Gatlin, twice banned for drug offences, rolled back the years to win a second world title 12 years after his first and 13 after claiming Olympic 100m gold.
As so often before Bolt made a terrible start but for once could not make it up as Christian Coleman, the 21-year-old American who beat him in the semi-finals, looked set for victory.
But Gatlin, who stumbled at the death to lose the 2015 world final to Bolt by a hundredth of a second, on this occasion timed his surge and dip to perfection to win in 9.92 seconds.
Coleman, who has run over 40 races this year but turned professional only a few weeks ago, took silver in 9.94.
Bolt, straining every sinew, fought all the way to the line but the pace and grace that took him to his world record of 9.58 eight years ago has withered with age and perennial injury battles and this time he ran out of track.
“It’s just one of those things,” Bolt said. “My start is killing me. Normally, it gets better during the rounds but it didn’t come together.”
When the results flashed up on the giant screen the crowd immediately began repeating the booing with which Gatlin’s name had been greeted since the heats on Friday.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, his first response was to put his finger to his lips to indicate silence.
The crowd reacted by chanting Bolt’s name and the Jamaican hugged Gatlin and told him he did not deserve the disrespect.
“I tuned it out (the boos) through the rounds and stayed the course. I did what I had to do,” said Gatlin, who served a four-year ban from 2006 for a second doping offence – which he always denied.
“The people who love me are here cheering for me and cheering at home.
“It is Bolt’s last race and he’s the man so it’s not about beating him. I have had many victories and many defeats down the years, he’s pushed and inspired me to be the athlete I am today.
“It’s surreal really to come across the line first – it’s still his night.
“We are rivals on the track but in the warm-down area we joke and have a good time. The first thing he did was congratulate me and say that I didn’t deserve the boos. He is an inspiration.”
As always, the ever-popular Bolt gave generously of his time after the race to fans and media alike, despite the unfamiliarity of finishing third for the first time in a major championship.
The Jamaican had been seeking a fourth 100m world title to go with his four over 200m, four relay golds and eight Olympic crowns and a capacity 56,000 crowd had turned out fully expecting to celebrate it.
“I needed to be in a better place after 30 metres but I just wasn’t in that super-shape I needed to be in,” said Bolt, who turns 31 this month.
“I gave it my best shot but my body’s telling me it’s time to go.”
He still has another chance to add to the medal tally in the 4x100m relay next week – when he will be desperate to avenge Saturday’s defeat in what, if the Americans manage to get the baton round, should be a last-leg showdown with Gatlin.
Also in the U.S. team will be Coleman, who looked set for a remarkable victory running in the lane alongside Bolt until the man 14 years his senior snatched it from lane eight of nine.
Coleman, however, was not about to complain.
“Both of us have done well, I’m really happy for him to get the gold and I’m delighted with silver,” he said.
Of Bolt, he added: “He’s a man who has taken the sport to a whole new level.
“He’s been an icon of mine as I’ve grown up. It’s an honour to toe the line with him.”