Bolt's farewell spells out athletics' major challenge

From ESPN - August 13, 2017

LONDON STADIUM -- As Usain Bolt took his final lap of the track to mark the closing of the 2017 IAAF World Athletics Championships, the London crowd took one last adoring look at the man who has transcended track and field. This was always going to be his final act, but now comes the question for the sport to which he has given so much: What next?

It was a night dominated on the track by teams of athletes, with sporting unpredictability again to the fore as Trinidad and Tobago won the men's 4x400-meter relay, pipping the United States, the overwhelming favourites and long-time leaders. It was a fitting closing race for a championships in which little has turned out as expected. It was fitting in another way, too. Because what was abundantly clear as Bolt walked slowly, almost sombrely, around the track soon after is that one man can no longer carry the sport.

As he did his lap of honour, a montage played of his greatest moments. They were the ones that halted countries, not even just his, in their tracks. Memories are a subjective thing, but Bolt and Mo Farah -- in this particular part of the world, at least -- had a way of invading the senses. No one could quite raise a roar like those two in London. They leave a sport trying to readjust and find balance without two of its long-standing, reliable pillars.

The world championship saw the sport take a stride forward. It did its best to strike a chord between putting on a show for those looking for a night of entertainment and for the more ardent athletics fans. There is enough to take forward from these 10 days of controversy, awe-inspiring finishes and the sound of scripts being torn up to offer long-standing memories, but there are also two years to fill before the next major championships in Doha without the limitless, far-reaching star power of Bolt to maintain interest.

For those bedecked in British flags on the final night, there was the chance to roar home their women's 4x400 team to silver, while the men took a surprise bronze. The relays raised the roof, while the USA finished atop of the medal table with a record-breaking 30, but Trinidad and Tobago even gatecrashed that American dominance in a 10-day spell in which reputations won you nothing.

Then there was the affable Qatari high jump winner Mutaz Essa Barshim -- he can work a crowd -- and the tactical brilliance of Hellen Obiri's gold-medal winning run in the 5,000 meters. Allyson Felix quietly moved on to 16 world championship medals in her career with gold as part of the United States' 4x400-meter relay team -- even the great Bolt trails in her wake.

Away from the track, memories may include the smiles on the faces of the 4,500 volunteers -- speaking a collective 63 different languages -- who are the lifeblood of this event; others will remember the brilliant mascot Hero the Hedgehog who managed to get the balance perfect between humour and not getting in the way.

But without Bolt at his blistering best, it lacked a centrifugal force. Sunday was not short of athletic brilliance, but there was not the same buzz around the place as there was on Saturday evening as Jamaican flags, Union Jacks and the odd Stars and Stripes dressed the bouncing walkway three hours before the evening session started. A day on, Saturday's events were still being talked about; the apposition of ecstasy and agony, the youth and the old-timers and shrieks of enjoyment and desperation. But the hope has to be that the image of Bolt -- the one of him injured in the 4x100-meter-relay final leg and lying prone on the track he has lit up -- will not be a metaphor for what's to come.


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