David Owen

If I might coin a phrase, there have been too many losers at the World Athletics Championships - for some people.

One too many at any rate. And yes, of course, I mean Usain Bolt.

Unpredictability is sport’s lifeblood, but it can drive those trying to make a business out of it potty.

Look where the really big bucks are, at European football and the main North American team sports, and you observe two distinct coping mechanisms.

Europe has ratcheted up financial disparities between the very best teams and the rest to the point where unpredictability, certainly over a season, is very much reduced and relegation unthinkable. 

North America is more inclined to keep direct competitors evenly matched and revenues less contingent on sporting performance. It can afford the luxury of relative sporting balance because relegation is not a threat faced by the main franchises.

It is one thing to design in predictability over a six- or nine-month season, quite another in an event lasting less than 10 seconds.

How much will Justin Gatlin’s shock blindsiding of Bolt in the showpiece men’s 100 metres, and the cacophony of boos it triggered, end up costing the sport of athletics in foregone future sponsorship revenues? Only time will tell.

But Saturday (August 5) night’s scenes in London’s Olympic Stadium do not strike me as the sort of spectacle likely to induce conservative, risk-averse multinational corporations to reach into their deep pockets.

Why then did I chuckle as it registered that Gatlin had snatched victory?

Justin Gatlin ripped up the Hollywood movie script on Saturday as he beat Usain Bolt to gold ©Getty Images
Justin Gatlin ripped up the Hollywood movie script on Saturday as he beat Usain Bolt to gold ©Getty Images

Simply this: the thought that the marketeers’ and spin-doctors’ scripts had gone comprehensively out of the window and that sport’s stubborn – and incredibly precious – propensity to confound the temptation to take it for granted had once again reasserted itself.

I understand completely why sport’s most essential quality can drive money men up the wall. I appreciate what the corporate dollars which have flooded into sport in recent decades have done in terms of enriching athletes and improving facilities.

But if sport is going to endure and grow, it is its unpredictability – not glitzy Hollywood-style entrances through lurid doors, or hedgehog mascots, or even (gasp) mixed relays – that will be at the core of the explanation.

Obviously, it would have been preferable if the man who beat Bolt had been someone who had not served two drugs bans earlier in his career.

But the relentless and highly audible scapegoating of the American, while it is uncomfortably close to mob justice towards someone who has served his time, should remind other athletes that respect is hard-won and is not guaranteed by good results.

We live in cynical times, but, over many years, the sport has given audiences every excuse to be cynical.

Unpredictability is one of the reasons why sprint hurdling is among my very favourite track-and-field disciplines.

And on Monday (August 7) night, I found myself cheering on Western Siberia-born Sergey Shubenkov as he loped home to a silver medal in the 110m hurdles behind Jamaican powerhouse Omar McLeod.

In a discipline where, well, discipline is key, Shubenkov’s technique has always appeared a thing of beauty to my untutored eye, like Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce’s sprinting or even Roger Federer’s tennis.

More to the point, I believe he was unjustly deprived of an opportunity to compete at last year’s Rio Olympics due to the hoo-hah over the Russian doping allegations. So it was good to see him back on a podium in London.

Omar McLeod, left, celebrates his 110m hurdles win in a race which saw Sergey Shubenkov, right, take home silver ©Getty Images
Omar McLeod, left, celebrates his 110m hurdles win in a race which saw Sergey Shubenkov, right, take home silver ©Getty Images

That whole Monday session was pretty darn special, full of the virtues that feed a degree of optimism that the sport may yet haul itself out of its long, dark night.

An enthralling women’s triple jump competition ended with the extrovert Yulimar Rojas narrowly winning a first World Athletics Championships title for her troubled South American nation.

While it seems a stretch to suggest that Venezuela’s destiny might be influenced in the slightest way by events in an East London sandpit, one hopes that Rojas’s exuberant performance at least gave her compatriots a bit of a lift as they contemplate the trials and tribulations of day-to-day life. Sport, at its best, can do that.

There was also that fascinating, high-class women’s 1500m, the sort of race which illustrates why this is such a classic distance and which would, you feel, produce a different winner with each rerunning.

It was the bronze medallist who most interested me.

Conditioned no doubt over the years to think that her biology almost guarantees victory, I had expected South Africa’s Caster Semenya to win comfortably.

This open, tactical, fluctuating contest was a sharp reminder that the sport, again, at its best, is far more multi-faceted and subtle than such crude analysis allows.

It was a worthy ending to what was a Magnificent Monday for the championships as it came to terms with Gatlin’s Saturday Surprise.