As you walked up to Olympic Stadium from Stratford’s rail hub, you knew it was going to be Usain Bolt’s night.
Street sellers had all manner of Jamaica-themed paraphernalia, with scarves and flags on sale, as fans of all countries awaited Saturday’s showpiece of a busy second day of the IAAF World Championships.
But perhaps the doubts, however suppressed, started to grow after Bolt’s semifinal, where he finished second to American Christian Coleman. Those looking at Bolt through black-and-yellow tinted spectacles put that down to him holding something back for the final — the final individual race of his career.
From the crowd to the athletes, here is how the men’s 100-meter final unfolded, as Justin Gatlin finally caught his rival in a screenplay of perfect athletic form.
The starting blocks
The spectators were introduced to the protagonists at the starting line. In Lane 5, Coleman had an anticipation around him, but he saw it as a chance to experience something completely new in his first final at an international championship.
Bolt, ever the showman, played up to the cameras for the penultimate time (he still has the 4×100 relay to come). He pumped his arms, then left those glued to the television with no illusion that it was actually he who was keeping his eyes on them.
The camera panned along the line. While Bolt was cheered, Gatlin, in Lane 8, was booed. “I really didn’t focus on the boos,” Gatlin said. “Throughout my rounds, I focused on my lane, and zoned in on that.” In Lane 9, Great Britain’s Reece Prescod also received a huge welcome.
Then came the silence.
The next 100 meters …
Coleman took the initiative in the race’s narrative, with Bolt left afterward to lament another slow start. He has been troubled by the starting blocks at the championship and criticized them after Friday’s qualifying heat. His reaction time Saturday: 0.183 seconds.
“I knew after my semifinal with Coleman that if I didn’t get my start, I’d be in trouble again,” Bolt said. “That’s it, I knew it. When I left the blocks, I knew … agh. I had to try my best, but it wasn’t good enough.”
With Bolt trailing, Coleman took an early lead. “I had to stay composed because I knew the atmosphere was going to be electric,” Coleman said.
Coleman led after 50 yards in Lane 4, with Bolt on his shoulder. Jimmy Vicaut, in Lane 3, was also pushing the leader, but then Gatlin gained ground on the outside.
“I was in Lane 8 so I couldn’t really feel [Lanes] 3 or 4,” Gatlin said. “I had to make the best of it. It’s either going to be a good thing or a bad thing for me as they couldn’t feel me. I tried to make sure I was in the mix with strong power from Christian and strong power from Usain.”
Bolt closed in on Coleman, but Gatlin strained over the neck. It wasn’t clear who had won. Coleman had run a remarkable race and was the first man shown on the screen.
“You don’t get to see a young guy [often], who’s been through a whole collegiate season and to be able to run as fast as he did and dominate the rounds as he did,” Gatlin said of his fellow University of Tennessee alumnus.
After that, Bolt came into focus.
It wasn’t meant to end like this. The cameras panned to Bolt, looking nervously at the screen. And then, suddenly, Gatlin’s time flashed up. Boos drowned out gasps as his championship-winning time of 9.92 seconds appeared. Gatlin roared in celebration, with his finger then pressed to his lips.
Bolt then walked over to Gatlin. The new champion fell to his knees, arms outstretched to pay tribute to Bolt, and with that came applause.
“I know it’s kinda sad that my boos were louder than other people’s cheers, but I wanted to keep it classy,” Gatlin said. “At the end of the race, I bent knee for Usain and paid homage to him.”
Mutual respect between two old foes; the crowd following Bolt as he saluted the man who for so long has been looking at the Jamaican celebrating gold after gold.
“He’s done his time,” Bolt said of Gatlin’s past doping suspension. “He’s one of the best competitors I have faced. He deserves to be here, he’s done his time and he’s worked hard to be here. He’s ran fast times, he’s back and he’s doing great. I look at him like any other athlete, as a competitor.”
Bolt finished third behind Coleman, who would later describe it as a “surreal feeling” to share the podium with the two masters. As Bolt and Gatlin separated from their embrace, the camera stayed on the Jamaican and the crowd continued to cheer for him.
“It is just one of those things,” Bolt said. “Thank you, London, for all your love and appreciation.
“It was rough. [I was] a little bit stressed, but I came out like at any other championships and did my best. The atmosphere was wonderful. … I’m just disappointed I couldn’t do better for them but that’s how it goes sometimes. … I have done all I can for the sport, it’s time to go.”
Rarely has the spotlight for a showpiece race shone so dimly on the victor, but that mattered little to Gatlin. “I did it for my country and I was thinking about those who believed in me when I didn’t really believe in myself,” he said. “For the first time on the starting line, I wasn’t thinking about myself, I was thinking about them.”
On a night when Bolt said his farewell to the track, there were seven other hopefuls looking to take his crown before the final curtain call. In the end, the two shared the spotlight: Gatlin as the winner and Bolt in his final individual race.
“This night is still a magical night for track and field and for Usain Bolt,” Gatlin said in a joint postrace news conference with Bolt. “Usain is a great man. He’s done so much. I’m just happy to be one of his biggest competitors.”
Then, he turned to Bolt and asked, “Am I?”
Bolt laughed and answered, “Yeah.”
“That’s all I wanted to hear,” Gatlin said in return.