Usain Bolt poses on the podium during the victory ceremony for the men’s 100m at the 2017 IAAF World Championships in London on Sunday. Pic/AFP
Is Usain Bolt's 100m bronze finish at the World Championships in London, where he brought the curtain down on his sprint career, an example of how cruel sport can be to its decorated practitioners?
It's a question that has occupied my mind ever since American Justin Gatlin ran the race of his life to win gold as Christian Coleman claimed silver, with Bolt finishing behind him on Saturday night.
"Not cruel," I was corrected by a well-travelled, discerning fellow journalist, who preferred to call Bolt's finale an imperfect ending instead. He was right.
This was, however, no fairy tale end to a career that has been distinguished without being controversial. That Bolt had to settle for bronze proves there is a human side to the extraordinary athlete.
There have been only a few fairy-tale endings in sport. Imran Khan's 1992 World Cup triumph comes first to mind. Eight years before that came the exits of Greg Chappell, Dennis Lillee and Rodney Marsh, after winning the 1983-84 series against Pakistan.
Just before the US Open tennis championships in 2003, Pete Sampras announced that he wouldn't be defending his crown. "I am retiring because I have nothing to prove to myself," he said, a few days before an emotional ceremony was held at the Open. No better way to say goodbye!
The game of cricket, which Jamaican Bolt is no stranger to, has witnessed several high-profile imperfect farewells. What better example than the greatest batsman of all-time, Don Bradman, who walked in to bat for his final Test against England at The Oval in 1948 and faced only two balls before walking back to the pavilion, bowled by Eric Hollies' googly with a duck against his name. Some critics were of the opinion that Bradman was teary-eyed while facing Hollies because of the emotional reception he got from the crowd and the England fielders, but The Don himself debunked that theory, although he did admit that the reception had, "stirred my emotions very deeply and made me anxious."
Sunil Gavaskar, who was often compared to Bradman when he batted for India, played the finest innings against the turning ball on a spiteful Bangalore pitch against Pakistan in 1987 but departed four short of what would have been his 35th Test century. A century in his final Test innings would have been a fairy-tale but it was not to be. India ended up losing the Test, and with it the series. Gavaskar's last ODI innings for India later that year could fetch him only four runs before India were beaten by England in the World Cup semi-final.
Garfield Sobers was another great whose farewell didn't pan out as desired. In 1974, Tony Greig had dismissed him for a duck in the first innings in Trinidad and when Sobers walked in for his last Test innings, he was determined not to bid farewell with a pair to his name. After he battled on to 20, left-arm spinner Derek Underwood threw up a full toss. Sobers should have worked it away. Instead he was a touch too cautious and was bowled. Being bowled by a full toss in his final fling must have hurt, but losing the Test was more excruciating.
Clive Lloyd, who became synonymous with success during his tenure as West Indies captain, deserved a better final Test. Although his team had pocketed the 1984-85 series in Australia, Allan Border's side beat the otherwise all-conquering West Indians in the fifth and final Test at Sydney through the spin bowling of Bob Holland and Murray Bennett.
Border, who played a big role in building a fine team which reached No 1 status under Mark Taylor, never had the pleasure of beating the West Indies in a series - something he so thoroughly deserved for the blood, sweat and tears he shed for Australia.
Steve Waugh couldn't end his Test career with a series win. Thwarted by Sourav Ganguly's men in 2003-04, Waugh ended up showered in glory in Sydney at the end of the series, but he would have preferred a win over a draw.
When the pain of disappointments ease, I'm sure the farewell 'victims' find perspective. Probably, the best balm is the realisation of the good fortune to represent your country in the first place. Some, like former England fast bowler Frank Tyson, who spent the last part of his active life coaching young fast bowlers in Mumbai, used to pray each night with clenched tender fists: "Please God, let me do well at cricket. Let me play for England." Like Bolt, he was known for his pace.
Usain Bolt, you did not merely represent your country, but you did so with dignity and grace. The World Championships 100m bronze is a gold for longevity.
mid-day's group sports editor Clayton Murzello is a purist with an open stance. He tweets @ClaytonMurzello. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org
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