By Mitch Phillips
RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) – Usain Bolt delivered. Mo Farah, Elaine Thompson, David Rudisha, three world records and a dominant United States played their part too, as athletics enjoyed being back in the limelight for the right reasons after a torrid year.
The absent Russia team were not missed but the absent fans were and organizers will need to find out why the crowds were so small for what should have been the centre-point of the Games.
Empty seats for morning sessions are not unusual, though not to the scale witnessed in Rio, and if they cannot sell out a 60,000-capacity stadium to watch Bolt in the Olympic 100 meters final then there is a problem somewhere along the line.
Bolt did his best to lift his sport, as he always does, completing his incredible triple-triple of 100metres, 200m and 4x100m relay to join Paavo Nurmi and Carl Lewis on nine gold medals as the most successful athletes in history.
The Jamaican also made sure that every media outlet and every fan got to see and hear him, aware as he is of his extraordinary standing as the shining beacon of hope and excellence amid the murk of doping and corruption.
There was much talk in Rio about who is going to fill the void once he retires next year and South Africa’s Wayde van Niekerk made an early case with a stunning 400m victory to demolish Michael Johnson’s 1999 world record.
Even that performance though was eclipsed by the extraordinary women’s 10,000m final, where the first 13 finishers set personal bests.
While Van Niekerk’s mark was widely acclaimed, Ethiopian Almaz Ayana was immediately questioned after destroying Wang Junxia’s 1993 record by 14 seconds.
There was also spectacular hypocrisy in the widespread booing of American double-doper Justin Gatlin while many other offenders, including some American team mates, were accorded a polite welcome.
Back on the good news side of the ledger, Farah impressively matched Lasse Viren’s achievement of retaining both the 10,000 and 5,000m titles, Thompson pulled off a brilliant 100/200m double while Rudisha overcame a troubled year to retain his 800m title.
Ashton Eaton underlined his status as the greatest all-round athlete in the world by successfully defending his decathlon title, helping the Unite States to a table-topping 13 golds, while Pole Anita Wlodarczyk broke her own world record to take the women’s hammer.
For home supporters there will be one memory above all as Thiago da Silva pulled off a shock pole vault victory to win Brazil’s first athletics gold for 34 years.
The shame for Da Silva was that, unlike Sydney’s cacophonous Cathy Freeman night or London’s Super Saturday, his moment in the sun was witnessed by no more than around 10,000 fans.
IAAF President Sebastian Coe acclaimed the 10 days’ “enthralling” action as evidence that “our sport is alive and incredibly strong”.
However, with positive drugs tests littering the last two Olympics and still emerging even eight years on from Beijing, the time to judge whether athletics in Rio has been a success or another festival of doping is probably still a long way down the road.
(Editing by Alison Williams)