No more trash talk, only great respect
The bad blood between athletes at major competitions has been replaced by camaraderie and light-heartedness.
The heat of the battle seems to have almost always brought out the worst in athletes. They have taunted, bad-mouthed and levelled scathing criticism against their opponents.
Not anymore, if you go by what has been on view at the 17th World Championships in athletics. Sure they fight till the last, giving their everything for that piece of gold. But bad blood is certainly not being shed around the track and field in Doha.
You have a Christian Taylor offering a friendly pat to beaten triple jump rival Will Claye, Dina Asher-Smith tracing her steps back to check on an injured English Gardner, pole vault medallists doing back flips together. Indeed, we seem to be living in far friendlier times than before.
Turn the clock back to the eighties and you can find the war of words between Ben Johnson and Carl Lewis dominating the trackside talk. Long after Johnson’s infamous doping episode at the 1988 Olympics, the verbals continued. Each constantly questioned the other’s integrity.
Americans Michael Johnson and Maurice Greene too were not shy to enter the verbal war zone while just before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, American Jenn Stuczynski hurled a nasty barb at Russia’s Yelena Isinbayeva. Isinbayeva replied with a world record at the Bird’s Nest but the comments tarnished what should have been a good-natured contest.
Many called this entertainment, some said it gave the competitors an edge while the others questioned the need to constantly badger the opponents. Even in the Usain Bolt era, verbal missiles were not in short supply, especially when the topic involved a certain Justin Gatlin.
Doha has seen a marked turnaround though.
On the field, during the events or at post-event press conferences, athletes have displayed immense respect to their opponents. In some events, one could even witness genuine celebration of each other’s achievements, and at times, even in the heat of competition, there were lighter moments.
The rivalry between Taylor and his American teammate Claye in triple jump is well known. But beyond the battlefield, there exists a healthy friendship between the two.
“I think our camaraderie is really special. That’s what sets us apart. You see a lot of track athletes avoiding competition, but we don’t have that. We’re trying new things and we have this connection,” said Taylor after winning the gold in Doha.
The men’s pole vault, which saw a close battle between Sweden’s Armand Duplantis and USA’s Sam Kendricks, ended with the vaulters embracing warmly after Duplantis failed to outdo the US vaulter. And then the top three vaulters – third placed Poland’s Piotr Lisek joining the other two on the mat – concluded the drama with a back flip to loud cheers from the stands.
“We’re just being bros,” said Kendricks.
There were no dares, challenges or comparisons as they spoke about the coming season. Kendricks said, “All of us are in a great place and we’re looking forward to a fantastic season. That will only help our sport”.
The women’s hammer throw saw gold medallist DeAnnna Price and second-placed Poland’s Joanna Fiodorow engage in a warm embrace with their country’s flags wrapped around themselves. China’s Zheng Wang, who won the bronze, summed up the competition. “We are more like a family rather than rivals. During the final we were encouraging each other,” she said.
American Sandi Morris, who was beaten to the gold by Authorised Neutral Athlete (ANA) Anzhelika Sidorova in the women’s pole vault, was the first to congratulate the winner, running in from the track side to give the champion a hug of genuine warmth.
The feeling of friendship was perhaps best expressed by Grant Holloway, who won the 110M hurdles after a close contest between ANA’s Sergey Shubenkov and Pascal and Martinot-Lagarde of France. “I have great respect for you guys. I have grown up watching you run and your races are the reason for pushing me and putting me where I am today. Thank you for that,” he said.
There were moments of great sportsmanship too. Guinea-Bissau’s Braima Dabo helping Aruba’s Jonathan Busby across the finish line in the 5000M was a standout moment.
While the athletes’ personalities have seen a welcome change, the competitive edge still prevails. Arrogant talk has been replaced by respect, grace and humility. It all makes for a wonderful presentation of athletics, creating the feel-good factor that can draw fans to the stadiums.