I was watching the men’s 100m final of the athletics World Championships in a sports bar on Saturday night, having really wanted to watch it and being out.
As a result, there was no sound on with which to appreciate the full reaction to Justin Gatlin’s victory in the London Stadium which I understand was not the best. However, the rest of the event gave a clear indication to me that it’s not just what you do, but how you do it.
It raises interesting questions about our tolerance for failure and whether we would forgive losing in return for a valiant effort, but the final on Saturday night went further than that.
Before the race, Usain Bolt was playing to the cameras with smiles and winks. Even having been defeated, the television followed him round the stadium as he applauded the fans – his fans – and embraced members of his team and, I’m guessing, his family.
Bolt’s on track career, spanning 9 years, lasted only around 4 minutes. Before Saturday night, he had only not won once, and that was when he was disqualified for a false start. He is a legend and superstar and arguably, probably, the face of global athletics. No-one will come close for years to come. He was someone you’d want to be friends with.
Gatlin, on the other hand, isn’t. Twice banned for failing drugs tests, this was a 35 year old running at a speed belying his years. When he was found guilty of taking the banned steroid testosterone in 2006, he was given an 8 year ban which was deemed to be a life ban. It was cut to 4 years.
Whatever the opinions of whether drugs cheats should be allowed to compete again, it’s an obvious story that an adoring public does not simply want the fastest person to win. Sometimes talent is not enough, as we also see when comparing the reaction to Chris Froome’s four Tour de France wins versus the achievement of Sir Bradley Wiggins in winning it once.
We actually want our favourite people to win because they’re our favourite people. They don’t always have to be the best on the night, as long as they’re the best over the 9 years and 4 minutes, which can be an interesting lesson to take elsewhere.