First lesson from world championships: there is no next Usain Bolt
It is not uncommon for athletes contractually obliged to address the media to sound like disciplined hostages being paraded by their captors: name, rank, serial number, monosyllables, grunts. When Wayde van Niekerk attended his press conference after winning the 400m on Tuesday night, he sounded more like a hostage with Stockholm Syndrome. “How does it feel to be the most well-known person in track and field?” an American journalist asked.
“It’s always an honour … massive responsibility … continue performing … continue winning medals … continue the great legacy … important for each and everyone to build a positive image for our sport … a massive honour and I thank the Lord every day … it’s a journey, it’s life … embrace every moment … thank the Lord.”
Nothing has epitomised the sense of desperation that lies close to the surface of the World Athletics Championships so much as the ludicrous attempt – not only by the press but also by officialdom – to anoint Van Niekerk as the new Usain Bolt. Perhaps nothing quite so mad has been seen since Australian cricket spent about half a century trying to unearth the next Don Bradman.
There was no next Bradman and there is no next Bolt, whose combination of freakish physique, focused determination and PR genius has been matched only by Muhammad Ali. Van Niekerk is a lovely mover, a seemingly honourable and sweet young man and someone whose physical and mental vulnerability is being tested beyond reasonable endurance, as if he were a real hostage.
By Thursday night, having come within a blink of an eye of completing the 400m-200m double, he needed a live-TV hug, lasting about 20.09 seconds in itself, from the BBC reporter Phil Jones before he could jabber again, and this time the desperation had fallen entirely on him: “I worked for tonight [sniffle] … just as hard as every other competitor [sniffle] … I show everyone else respect [sniffle] … I think I didn’t get respect tonight … I feel it is very unfair.”
Then he thanked God and walked sadly away. In due course he may thank God for the defeat. It may do something to deflect unrealistic expectations and allow him to chart his own course without having to do Sebastian Coe’s job and save this benighted sport from its own outrageousness.
Football’s corruption, like the Great Wall of China, can be seen from space. But at least as the season starts we can be confident that on the field there will be fair cheating all round. At these championships officials and pundits have been thanking God for the absence of world records as a sign that perhaps the sport is becoming a little less doped up. It is a sort of motif for a planet on which progress has been abolished.
London hoped for a mini-reprise of the 2012 Olympics. But athletics, served singly, cannot provide it. JB Priestley described marriage as “a long, dull meal with pudding as the first course”, a quote that came to mind on day two when the schedule, having served up Bolt and Mo Farah in the first 48 hours, had little left to offer, which explains much of the pressure that was heaped on poor Van Niekerk.
This is not easy to remedy. You cannot easily Twenty20-ise athletics: “Hey, the 100m is way too long – can’t we make it 25?”
Much of the narrative has revolved around exotic gastric viruses, as in the tropics. Yet the weather has been parodically British: 2012 took place in a fine spell after a dismal midsummer; this time the reverse has happened. I have had wetter sporting experiences than Wednesday night in the stadium (Pontypool rugby, Folkestone races, where you could get drenched at the back of the stands); I have been colder (Nottingham Forest). But it is hard to remember wet and cold combining quite so malevolently, at least not in August.
The crowd trudged through the beckoning lights of the shopping centre, past a joint called Potbelly and a branch of Fatface, getting damp even under the roof, out on to a route that was like the steeplechase course in reverse – one long watersplash with the occasional island. If there was an Olympic-style party scene round that windswept and dystopian open space known as the park, then I never found it this week (story of my life) but colleagues assured me they never found it either.
I first realised that Londoners were now willing to put up with, and turn up to, absolutely anything at Will and Kate’s wedding in 2011. It became obvious, talking to the crowds on the streets, that this was not a massive outpouring of support for royalty: it was an expression of an urgent need, by people who experience life through screens, to be part of something, no matter what. They would have been just as happy to watch the monarchy overthrown.
This was followed, most obviously, by the mass suspension of disbelief that constituted the Olympics as well as the vast numbers who stood all day to watch several seconds of the Tour de France in 2014 and the huge crowds that support American football’s increasingly frequent invasions of the capital. The public manifestations of Corbynmania may fit the same template.
The BBC coverage of the week started at peak hysteria (“We’ve got the rights to something! How special is THAT?”) but seems to have become more measured. The commentariat have still been at pains to praise the knowledgeable crowd, and indeed the spectators do seem to have grasped the essentials: that the medals are normally won by those who travel the fastest, jump the highest or throw the furthest, and any variation on that usually comes to light only after they have all gone home.
Frankly, athletics is either very simple or exceedingly technical, and there is not much scope for the kind of halfway-house knowledge possessed by followers of most sports.
The shortage of British medals has obviously been a calming influence: “It’s another fourth for Great Britain!” This takes one back to the balmy days of Olympic reporting when it was possible to go out for a dinner that did not comprise tepid dogs and Bovril without fear of missing yet another British gold.
Is there perhaps a growing realisation of the extent of the con-trickery that lay at the heart of the entire London Olympics phenomenon?
On Friday the Directory of Social Change, a charity that services the voluntary sector, issued a press release to mark the 10th anniversary of what it called “the Big Lottery Fund raid”, the diversion of £425m earmarked for charities to finance Olympic costs. This was supposed to be repaid by the sale of Olympic assets after 2012. “So far,” said Rachel Cain, senior researcher at the Directory, “little has been sold off to reimburse the Lottery.”
The age of Blair and Cameron, the PR PMs, is over and the country is notionally governed by a woman who has some trouble grasping public relations at all. One advantage of this may be the end of an era when Britain treasured gold medals for their own sake, and funded elite sport and stadiums at the expense of necessary facilities.
Every time I have looked at a medals ceremony this week, the honours were being handed out by a member of the IAAF council. Lord Coe and his No2, Sergey Bubka aside, they tended to look exceedingly well-fed: no stadium grub for them. Perhaps they worry about their deeply troubled sport, perhaps not too much.
Over the weekend we can all sit back and say a final farewell to Bolt and Farah. And that is unmissable. West Ham can then return to their stately home, a gift from a generous nation. And the rest of us can return to watching something else on our multiple screens, and paying occasional visits to Potbelly and Fatface._ The Guardian
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