This much we know already: the World Athletics Championships will start with a bang – both off and on the track. More than 50,000 people inside the London stadium for Friday’s opening night, along with millions watching on TV, will be greeted with a dazzling array of pyrotechnics as well as Usain Bolt going supersonic in the 100m heats and, if the bookies and form book are correct, Mo Farah stretching away from the field to claim yet another 10,000m gold medal, The Guardian reports.
The atmosphere will be electric, as it will be for the next 10 nights. And when Bolt – the greatest sprinter and showman in the sport’s history – says his golden goodbyes in Saturday’s 100m final and then again in the 4x100m relay on Saturday week the images will go global.
But most of the 2,000 athletes arriving in London for these championships, as well as the agents, coaches and powerbrokers embedded in the sport, know that track and field is at a crossroads. New global stars are needed to step into Bolt’s vast shadow. The stink of numerous doping scandals continues to linger and pollute. Revenues are falling. And as the IAAF president, Sebastian Coe, admits, fresh ways are needed to make younger fans care about athletics the way previous generations once did.
Yet for all these problems, the vast array of talent and tantalising subplots on show in Stratford will make for compelling viewing. Even those with only a casual interest in track and field will surely tune in to see whether Bolt, who turns 31 this month and has had an interrupted buildup, still has the top-end speed to hold off his rivals – particularly Yohan Blake, who has found God and, it is said, his best form for years.
Behind Bolt there is the brilliant South African Wayde van Niekerk, the world 400m record holder and the athlete ready to be anointed as the sport’s next superstar. The International Association of Athletics Federations has even tweaked its schedule so the 25-year-old can attempt an audacious 200m and 400m double, a feat not achieved at a world championships or Olympics since Michael Johnson lit up the Atlanta Games in 1996. Sadly, with Bolt opting to skip the 200m, we are denied the chance to enjoy an epic intergenerational clash. It would have been a fantastic moment for the sport – but not, you suspect, for Bolt.
Van Niekerk is not the only athlete with realistic ambitions of doubling up. Another South African, Caster Semenya, the 800m Olympic champion, has entered a stacked 1500m which includes Britain’s brightest young star, Laura Muir. If Semenya were to saunter to the 800m and 1500m titles it would not only be a spectacular feat but would again reignite the debate over what, if anything, should be done about athletes with hyperandrogenism – the condition of excessive male sex hormones in the female body.
Elsewhere there will be much interest in the return of the Russians – or rather 19 of them, who have been cleared to compete in London as “neutral athletes” by the IAAF. However, Russia’s athletics federation is still banned, along with their anthem and national colours, which are not allowed even on bandages or nail varnish. They should win a handful of medals with the world high jump champion, Maria Lasitskene, who has won every round of the Diamond League this season, one of the biggest certainties for gold in the championships.
Watch out, too, for the growing strength of South African track and field, with Van Niekerk and Semenya likely to win three gold medals and either Luvo Manyonga or Rushwal Samaai expected to win the long jump.
How the Kenyans, who topped the medal table in 2015, perform will also be closely observed given the lack of drug testing in the country until very recently. Most expect them to fall back on their dizzy performance in Beijing, an effect that could hit home hardest in the 3,000m steeplechase. Not since Italy’s Francesco Panetta in 1987 has a world or Olympic steeplechase title gone to a man born outside Kenya – however the American Evan Jager is favourite to break that 30-year sequence.
What is certain is that these world championships in London are the best shop window for track and field outside an Olympic Games. Expect drama and intrigue. Glory and suspicion. And, inevitably, Bolt to depart the sport he has dominated for nearly a decade emblazoned in gold once more.