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Sporting Life

Usain Bolt's graciousness in defeat an antidote to boos for Justin Gatlin

First times always matter. First autograph. First photo with a hero. First time you enter a major stadium to see and feel the planet's best at athletic work. The size, the sound, the spectacle, it's like being inside your television set. The thrill you feel when you first see a familiar name. The hush you're part of as runners kneel before a race as if in homage to their art. The wonderment as a long jumper hangs in the air. The crazy lady woo-hooing next to you.

You're not an outsider any more, you're there, part of the story. Which is what happened to my nephews, 12 and 14, last weekend. They were in London for a morning session of the world athletic championships. They saw runners and jumpers, leapers and lopers, the failing and the fabulous. Yet I am grateful there's only one thing they didn't see or hear that morning.

The boo.

Instead, their first day in such a stadium was a valuable lesson on how to cheer, for they saw support for the great, the home-grown, the average and the fallen. They learnt to look for high jumpers who wanted the audience to clap along as they leaped towards heaven and they understood that it's best to wait for the 400m runners to stride past their section and then vigorously applaud.

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They were experiencing that glorious, living thing called the English sporting crowd. I can't speak for football but I can for the civility at Wimbledon, the generosity at the cricket where the square-cut of the Australian is applauded, the enthusiasm in arenas which turned the 2012 Olympics into an irresistible and unforgettable carnival.

But they didn't witness in person the strange and sad jeering of Justin Gatlin and I am glad.


Usain Bolt (left) and Justin Gatlin embrace after the final of the men's 100m at the 2017 IAAF World Championships at the London Stadium on Aug 5. PHOTO: AFP

Maybe when my nephews get older they'd like to boo officials, the ones who keep changing the rules on drug bans, but really let's not boo at all. Let's not be part of a mob. Not even if it concerns Gatlin. Not even if he didn't just get a second chance, which is only fair, but a third one. Not even if he beat Usain Bolt in his last individual race which is divine injustice, though in truth more like a less-than-divine start.

I understand the boos - which did not include everyone - were just an exhalation of collective frustration, for we're sick of dopers and the dunces who let them race and the fakery of the competition and the cheats without conscience who steal medals and moments from champions. And so Gatlin is easy to dislike and paying fans aren't meant to be pious but after a while our contempt begins to feel like bullying.

I understand the boos - which did not include everyone - were just an exhalation of collective frustration, for we're sick of dopers and the dunces who let them race and the fakery of the competition and the cheats without conscience who steal medals and moments from champions. And so Gatlin is easy to dislike and paying fans aren't meant to be pious but after a while our contempt begins to feel like bullying.

Booing, one might argue, is the spectators' right but I want my nephews to appreciate that mostly it's just rude and self-righteous. Would we boo our own athletes on podiums if they once cheated? Would we be as forgiving when foreign crowds jeer our heroes for behaviour that offends them?

Should we make a list of jeer-able offences and hoot-able sins? Can we brutally boo tennis players who take too long to serve, golf swearers, football divers, no-autograph-givers and Formula One drivers who don't let others pass? Must we boo swimmers who don't put their hands on their hearts during anthems because we insist that's unpatriotic? Hell, at the Rio Olympics there was booing even at what surely should have been a boo-free zone - the beach volleyball.

I abhor cheating for it results in counterfeit sport and demeans effort and I don't much care for Gatlin. But what mattered that day was Bolt. A runner who had previously cheated had ruined his farewell and spiked his script and bruised his record and if Bolt, right then, had griped about Gatlin he would have found a wider chorus. Yet in the proverbial heat of the moment the Jamaican forged a memorable moment.

He was not quick enough on the track and yet he was fast with his respect. He embraced Gatlin and applauded him during the victory ceremony and said of the American: "For me he deserves to be here, he's done his time and he's worked hard to get back to being one of the best athletes". The beaten man was a better man than the booers.

I want my nephews to be fans who believe in fairness and when the older one said he wouldn't have booed Gatlin if he was there, I was pleased. Kids always need adults to imitate and I am grateful they saw the last of Bolt because in its own way this was some of the best of Bolt. A champion in his last individual race who lost like he won: with style. All class and no carping. All respect and no recrimination. One might say it was a hell of a finish.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 08, 2017, with the headline 'Bolt's graciousness in defeat an antidote to boos for Gatlin'. Print Edition | Subscribe