Life after Usain Bolt: Men's 100m race is still the big show
Even without the sprint legend, the marquee event is alive and well
DOHA, Qatar — The pied piper of athletics has been retired for two years now but the three-ring circus that is a world championship track meet has survived his exit.
It may be true that there is no Usain Bolt brand to peddle more tickets for the first championships to be held in the Middle East, but the electricity of the actual sporting event remains the same. In particular that special evening on the opening weekend here in Doha which took us to the men's 100-metre final.
In fact, the 48-hour buildup to the inevitable showdown, which lasted less than 10 seconds, seemed even more interesting than it has in the past few editions of the track and field summit.
Beginning in Berlin in 2009, it was all about Bolt and how fast he could go – what record would he set next?
Here in Qatar, in the absence of Bolt, the race, not the time, became the most important thing.
They still dimmed the lights, lit up the track, and played music which rose to a crescendo as the contestants were introduced. None of the sprinters preened and pranced as Bolt might have done, because they didn't have an image to project or a need to be adored. They just desired to win the biggest running race there is.
WATCH | Life after Bolt
The house announcer shushed the crowd and the stadium, which was disappointingly less than full, fell silent.
The gun went off and a new man jetted into Bolt's enormous shadow.
Christian Coleman, a 23-year-old from Atlanta and a bit of an introvert, ran a blistering personal best of 9.76 seconds, the fastest time in the world this season, to claim the crown and thus became the immediate favourite to succeed Bolt as Olympic champion in Tokyo in less than a year's time.
And when it was over, Coleman celebrated, although he didn't make a spectacle of himself as Bolt surely would have. Instead he patiently and politely answered the questions put to him.
"It means the world to me because this is what I set out to do," Coleman said, looking me directly in the eye as Bolt never did.
"At the end of 2017 when I got a silver medal I knew I wanted to be on this stage and to come out with the win. That was the plan."
WATCH | Coleman blazes to 100m world title
What Coleman hadn't planned on along the way was a controversy which saw him miss the Diamond League final because he was facing disciplinary action for failing to disclose his whereabouts for three doping tests.
It got the drug rumours swirling again.
But he won his appeal to the United States Anti-Doping Agency, USADA, and was allowed to come to the world championships and dominated just the same.
And again, he didn't shy away from answering the question about the path that led him here.
"The road to success is never going to be straight and people realize there will always be twists and turns and ups and downs," Coleman said. "Don't let anybody doubt you or put a hold on what you think you can accomplish. You can do anything. You can go out and win a gold medal.
"I'm blessed, that's all I can say. I'm blessed."
Every champion faces doping questions
Rumours will always surround the men's 100 metres. It is part of the mysterious allure of the event. Since the Ben Johnson scandal at the 1988 Olympics, every champion of this discipline is questioned and few, with the possible exception of Bolt himself, are seen to be clean by the general population.
The silver medallist here in Doha knows that all too well.
Justin Gatlin, who came here as defending champion, is a 37-year-old from Brooklyn, NY. He won his first world championship title in this event nearly 15 years ago. He was also Olympic champion in 2004 and has served two suspensions for doping, one which lasted four years.
Still, Gatlin keeps on running in spite of the cloud which hangs over him, and he keeps on winning medals and competing stride-for-stride with much younger men. And like Coleman, he gladly pauses to eloquently face the post-race music when all is said and done.
"Running clearly means the world to me," Gatlin smiled. "I know how to go out there and seize the moment to the best of my ability. A lot of people questioned if I could even get to the final."
WATCH | The Comeback: Andre De Grasse
On the subject of his long-time rival Bolt being gone, Gatlin is politely philosophical.
"I have to take my hat off to these young athletes…the whole lineup. They have all been running great this season…blanket finishes across the line each and every time you watch a Diamond League race," Gatlin offered.
"That's what you want to see. It makes you want to grab your popcorn and sit down and learn these new athlete's names and go on their journey with them."
In other words, according to Gatlin, it's the race that matters most.
And for the 24-year-old bronze medallist, Andre De Grasse of Markham, Ont., it was all about getting back into the race.
WATCH | Andre De Grasse reacts to his bronze-medal finish
Much had been made of the friendly, playful, competition between the young, upstart De Grasse and the great Bolt at the Olympics in Rio in the summer of 2016. And then the next year De Grasse missed his chance to beat Bolt at the world championships in London because of a hamstring injury.
Still, as he roared to a personal-best time of 9.90, and the medal in Doha and then paraded his 15-month-old daughter Yuri around the stadium while draped in a Canadian flag, the more mature De Grasse didn't seem to miss the great man's presence all that much.
Bolt is from another part of De Grasse's life and the Canadian is just happy to be here.
"Coming off injuries and being out of the sport for the last couple of years, I'll put it into one word," he said. "I'm grateful."
And then De Grasse, who had just thrilled millions of Canadians back home, took the time to ponder and then articulate the reason for his return to the spotlight.
"I think if it wasn't for family I don't know where I'd be," he said. "Through all the negativity they kept me positive. They said to keep the dedication and to keep working hard and today was a good sign that things are going to turn around for me.
"My confidence level is great. I believe it's going to be a good show."
Indeed it will be, but it will also be a different kind of show than the ones that saw Bolt receive most of the accolades. It might even be a drama which has a deeper meaning. A situation where the person who gets to the finish line first is more intriguing than the time it takes to get there.
Make no mistake: the men's 100m final is all about the race.
And even without Bolt, it's still the big show.