Bolt's farewell leaves athletics with major challenge after London

Usain Bolt waves to the crowd during his farewell lap that marked the end of his career and the 2017 World Athletics Championships in London. Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images

LONDON STADIUM -- As Usain Bolt took his final lap of the track to mark the closing of the 2017 IAAF World Athletics Championships, the London crowd took one last adoring look at the man who has transcended track and field. This was always going to be his final act, but now comes the question for the sport to which he has given so much: What next?

It was a night dominated on the track by teams of athletes, with sporting unpredictability again to the fore as Trinidad and Tobago won the men's 4x400-meter relay, pipping the United States, the overwhelming favourites and long-time leaders. It was a fitting closing race for a championships in which little has turned out as expected. It was fitting in another way, too. Because what was abundantly clear as Bolt walked slowly, almost sombrely, around the track soon after is that one man can no longer carry the sport.

As he did his lap of honour, a montage played of his greatest moments. They were the ones that halted countries, not even just his, in their tracks. Memories are a subjective thing, but Bolt and Mo Farah -- in this particular part of the world, at least -- had a way of invading the senses. No one could quite raise a roar like those two in London. They leave a sport trying to readjust and find balance without two of its long-standing, reliable pillars.

The world championship saw the sport take a stride forward. It did its best to strike a chord between putting on a show for those looking for a night of entertainment and for the more ardent athletics fans. There is enough to take forward from these 10 days of controversy, awe-inspiring finishes and the sound of scripts being torn up to offer long-standing memories, but there are also two years to fill before the next major championships in Doha without the limitless, far-reaching star power of Bolt to maintain interest.

For those bedecked in British flags on the final night, there was the chance to roar home their women's 4x400 team to silver, while the men took a surprise bronze. The relays raised the roof, while the USA finished atop of the medal table with a record-breaking 30, but Trinidad and Tobago even gatecrashed that American dominance in a 10-day spell in which reputations won you nothing.

Then there was the affable Qatari high jump winner Mutaz Essa Barshim -- he can work a crowd -- and the tactical brilliance of Hellen Obiri's gold-medal winning run in the 5,000 meters. Allyson Felix quietly moved on to 16 world championship medals in her career with gold as part of the United States' 4x400-meter relay team -- even the great Bolt trails in her wake.

Away from the track, memories may include the smiles on the faces of the 4,500 volunteers -- speaking a collective 63 different languages -- who are the lifeblood of this event; others will remember the brilliant mascot Hero the Hedgehog who managed to get the balance perfect between humour and not getting in the way.

But without Bolt at his blistering best, it lacked a centrifugal force. Sunday wasn't short of athletic brilliance, but there wasn't the same buzz around the place as there was on Saturday evening as Jamaican flags, Union Jacks and the odd Stars and Stripes dressed the bouncing walkway three hours before the evening session started. A day on, Saturday's events were still being talked about; the apposition of ecstasy and agony, the youth and the old-timers and shrieks of enjoyment and desperation. But the hope has to be that the image of Bolt -- the one of him injured in the 4x100-meter-relay final leg and lying prone on the track he has lit up -- will not be a metaphor for what's to come.

IAAF president Sebastian Coe spoke proudly of the record-breaking London 2017 on the final day, highlighting how there were more athletes than ever competing -- 2,200 from 203 countries -- and the record attendances, which collectively nudged over 705,000. He stopped short of saying that it had restored the sport's reputation, but he did suggest the young talent coming through had given new reason to smile and spoke of how he wants to continue developing and evolving the refugee team that competed at Rio and here.

There are still myriad issues for the IAAF to solve. They are still in the process of challenging the Court of Arbitration for Sport's ruling over testosterone levels for women's events, and they are still weighing up the future of five countries who are in "critical care" for their drug-testing systems. For all the glorious entertainment of the 10 sessions, there are the shadows which continue to haunt the sport.

So what will London be remembered for? It has been a championship that has done its evil best to ruin fairy-tale endings and even threw norovirus at some of its athletes. Then there was the absence of Russia; instead, the team of Authorised Neutral Athletes finished ninth in the medal table, with six in total.

Then there were the highlights. Isaac Makwala's solo 200-meter run and his press-ups were a remarkable spectacle after two days of controversy, while Sally Pearson's celebration after winning the 100-meter hurdles was a moment that raised involuntary smiles. Nafi Thiam's heptathlon gold was seven track and field events' worth of sporting poetry. And then there was Felix's record-breaking medal haul and Christian Taylor's feats and the British 4x100 team and Lalonde Gordon's last leg in the 4x400 and Hero the Hedgehog and the men's 100 finish and, and, and ... phew.

But there was no roar quite like the one for Bolt as he did his farewell lap. He was called the saviour of sport by the in-stadium master of ceremonies, but athletics needs to find a way forward that is not reliant on a handful individuals. It seemed suitable that the lyrics of Bob Marley's "One Love" played out, "Let's get together and feel alright" as Bolt walked slowly around, struggling to raise the smile we have seen for so long.

Though Coe earmarked Christian Coleman as the future king of sprinting, one man cannot fill the void left by Bolt. Wayde van Niekerk arrived at the championships tagged as that and left with gold, silver and a broken heart from all the pressure. The sport needs to promote a collective identity of super-humans and do its utmost to remove any ambiguity over their verisimilitude. It also needs to find a way of keeping them in the public eye and public consciousness in the gaps between major competitions.

But now, to Doha in 2019. Lord Coe said the IAAF will continue to monitor the political uncertainty in that part of the world, but if and when it goes ahead, Barshim, the hugely entertaining Qatari high jumper, is assured a dominant place in its marketing. He cannot do it alone. Nobody can. Even Bolt and Farah could not deliver the fairy-tale athletics needs. If athletics come together, it might just feel alright.