Alan Hubbard

The ever-estimable Michael Johnson has raised the pertinent question - while making it clear it was a question and not an indictment - as to whether six medals and sixth place in an International Association of Athletics Federations World Championships on home territory was a reasonable return for the £27 million ($35 million/€30 million) lobbed in the direction British Athletics by UK Sport.

He suggested it may be a matter of "concern" while pointing out that he could think of no other athletics federation which received such a huge amount of money.

It was a good question and a fair one from one of the few BBC sports pundits who calls it as they see it.

You can be sure that throughout the seven days before the final weekend, there was some uncomfortable foot-shuffling in the VIP box of the Olympic Stadium in London by the denizens of UK Sport who had set a medal target of between six and eight of any colour.

Until last Saturday (August 12) there had been just one, a gold, inevitably from Sir Mo Farah, followed by a clutch of fourth places and also rans. But of course under UK Sport’s no-compromise, winning-is-everything diktat even fourth represents failure.

Until Sir Mo’s subsequent sobering silver and the cavalry, in the form of those magnificent relay squads charged to the rescue, it seemed as if the funding body would be facing some serious quizzing as to whether athletics still deserves that degree of investment or whether some of that money should have gone to sports now struggling on the breadline having been denuded of their own funding.

So, there were huge sighs of relief all round when Britain’s 80-plus team had hit the low end of their generous target. Just.

Good enough? Johnson leaves it for others to say yes or no.

We heard from those others about how much burgeoning individual young talent there is for Tokyo 2020 and possibly beyond. That is certainly true.

But the medals at these World Championships were spread among 40 nations and many of those countries have emerging talent equal to the Brits.

Surely only two individual medals, from the same athlete, one of less value that anticipated, was not really what it should have been.

Steve Backley must have wondered where our next outstanding field eventers are coming from as must Seb Coe and Steve Cram in respect of Britain’s middle distance runners while dear old Daley Thompson surely pondered whether British decathletes have lost the will to count up to 10 in the discipline he once so brilliantly dominated.

But you wouldn’t find anyone other than a neutral such as Johnsom hinting that Britain’s athletics efforts were inadequate among the BBC’s galaxy of back-slappers and pom-pom wavers.

At times, the unabated chauvinism came close to that which irritatingly emanated from the United States media during the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

Objectivity seemed to fly out of the commentary box window and Johnson apart, what the BBC need are more proper journalists, not more moonlighters who recoil from anything contentious, especially drugs, or asking awkward questions, with one notable exception in Gabby Logan who was heavily criticised when legitimately asking one obout the medical exclusion of Isaac Makwala from the 400 metres.

In his role as a pundit for the BBC, Michael Johnson raised the question of whether Great Britain's performance at the World Championships was good enough ©Getty Images
In his role as a pundit for the BBC, Michael Johnson raised the question of whether Great Britain's performance at the World Championships was good enough ©Getty Images

What we tend to forget is that sport is no longer just about what happens on track or field, but matters of interest arising off them, some of which are deeply controversial and need airing.

Which is why David Coleman, trained as newspaper journalist with an eye for a story and how to report it (witness the Munich massacre), still has no peer.

At times, I was reminded of the occasion many years ago when, as a young sub-editor on The Times in London, I was dealing with a report from the paper’s shooting correspondent, a retired Army brigadier, on the national championships at Bisley.

There had been an incident during the day’s event when an official was accidentally shot, though thankfully not seriously wounded, when walking behind the target as a competitor fired.

Obviously it was quite a story, but when I read through the Brigadier’s report there was no mention of it. I telephoned him to ask why.

“I deliberately left it out” he brusquely informed me.

“Why?” I asked incredulously.

“Bad for the image of the sport,” came his reply.

I rest my case.

My armchair observations from a brilliantly-organised championships (no-one does big events better than London, as we were constantly reminded by the BBC) was that we had bags of watchable drama and the curiosity that no-one was running faster, jumping higher or throwing longer that in the last Olympics or previous World Championships.

Was it because of a more intensive drugs testing programme? Even Usain Bolt baulked at this suggestion.

It was also apparent that Sir Mo’s testy relationship with the "ingrate" British media is as fractious as that of Donald Trump’s with the American press corps. An inwardly seething Sir Mo didn’t actually use the phrase "fake news", but that was what he implied when castigating much of the press for any innuendo that he may not be as clean as he insists he is.

He pointed out in one of his rare interviews that he sleeps well at night, has never failed a drugs test and is as clean as the proverbial whistle. No doubt.

But he must know we heard exactly the same protestations of complete innocence from Lance Armstrong and Marion Jones.

So I am surprised that Sir Mo cannot understand why questions are now asked of all constantly winning athletes, especially in the light of his continuing association with the under-investigation coach Alberto Salazar, who chose not to accompany him to London.

Usain Bolt went into retirement without the golden finish he wanted, but will still be considered an athletics legend ©Getty Images
Usain Bolt went into retirement without the golden finish he wanted, but will still be considered an athletics legend ©Getty Images

No matter. He retires from the track with the appreciation of his public and a record as one of the supreme athletes of all time.

And, of course, so does Bolt, arguably the supreme athlete.

Much has been made of the comparisons between himself and Muhammad Ali, and rightly so.

Both are the only two sports figures in history who have transcended not just their own sport, but sport per se. Both remain universally worshipped will be throughout the ages.

Ali used to boast: ”Parachute me into High China and everyone will know who I am.”

Now the same can be said of Bolt.

Both found initial fame and enduring adulation through winning Olympic gold medals and somewhat ironically and symbolically, both left us in the same rather sad manner, losing their last two fights and races respectively as vulnerable shadows of the supermen they once were. Out of sorts and out of condition.

I was there with 18,000 others in a converted Las Vegas car park when a stumbling Ali was humiliatingly defeated in his penultimate fight by Larry Holmes, who repeatedly beckoned to the referee to stop the fight before Angelo Dundee compassionately took it upon himself to do so.

I confess I shed a tear at ringside that night.

And you know what? My eyes were damp again as Bolt was lefty trailing in third place by a drugs cheat, Justin Gatlin, and later pulled up in agony during the final leg of what was to be his valedictory appearance in the sport he had breathtakingly graced with such dignified domination for a generation.

As I wrote at the time of Ali’s own emotional exit. “The Greatest has gone. Finally, a legend has been licked.”

E tu, Usain.