Posted in Athletics

Beijing’s Forbidden Champion

“He’s saved his title. He’s saved his reputation. He may even have saved his sport.”

It’s fair to say Usain Bolt’s win over Justin Gatlin in the men’s 100m at the Beijing World Championships met with Steve Cram’s approval. This mostly unflappable commentator, working for a mostly impartial broadcaster, the BBC, was going unashamedly bonkers for Bolt. And, watching at home, so was I. So was everyone.

Bolt Vs. Gatlin in Beijing had been billed as a ‘battle for the soul of athletics.’ In the Good corner: Usain St. Leo Bolt, the sport’s showman, its drawcard, its crossover superstar. To a great many, Bolt is athletics: it’s on his lanky shoulders that the fame and reputation of this sometimes niche sport rests. And his adversary, in the Bad corner: Justin Gatlin, a two-time drugs cheat (who insists it’s only the one time), running faster than ever at the suspiciously advanced age of thirty three.

That Gatlin is a proven doper is bad, but he’s not the only offender. Cast an eye over the start list for the men’s 100m final and you’ll find three others: Mike Rodgers, Asafa Powell and Tyson Gay. That Gatlin is an unrepentant drugs cheat is worse, not least because it sends this message to would-be athletes and fellow competitors: cheats can prosper, even if you get caught. Twice.

And was Gatlin prospering. He ran a personal-best 9.74 seconds in Doha in May (Bolt’s best this season by comparison was a dawdling – by his standards – 9.87) and came into the 100m final riding an unbeaten streak of 26 races. Not only was the American unrepentant, but he was winning. Perhaps if he had been a second-rater – a Rogers or Powell – who hadn’t presumed to topple Bolt’s throne, athletics would have been quicker to forgive. But all the signs going into Beijing were that Gatlin, not Bolt, was poised to become world champion. It was a prospect that made many an athletics watcher shift uncomfortably.

It’s a shame Gatlin’s credentials are so dubious, because rivalries in sport are a Good Thing – witness what Nadal and Federer have done for tennis, Barcelona and Real Madrid for football. And until this year, save for a spirited challenge in 2012 by compatriot Yohan Blake (since injured), Bolt had been rival-free. No one was his equal, even on a bad day. We should embrace Gatlin, runs the counterargument, warts and all, for stepping up and threatening what until now had been an exercise in futility – beating Bolt. And Gatlin isn’t the devil, just a doper, which in criminal terms is more a petty pilferer than a contract killer. Anyway, the hero/villain narrative can only serve to add spice to an already tongue-tingling dish.

Bolt, for his part, sat on his hands when asked to denounce Gatlin, insisting he was racing for his own glory, not the sport’s. But whatever his motivations, it was clear something was weighing on him. Lining up for the semi-final, he seemed pressured, overanxious. The trademark pre-race mugging to camera was stilted, stagey. A visibly nervous Usain Bolt was overplaying the part of Usain Bolt. And when the race started, he was unrecognisable. Stumbling out of the blocks, he was well down at the halfway stage, winning in 9.96 seconds only thanks to a frantic late-race surge. He shook his head in self-reproof at the finish line; his fans wore worried brows. Gatlin, in his semi-final, duly riposted with an effortless 9.77. Surely there was only going to be one winner.

So, to the final. As the sprinters limbered up, as the stadium hushed up, the reputation of track and field trembled on the brink of collapse. All was in readiness for a Gatlin victory. Fearful, I clung to the empty hope that Bolt would find his form, that Gatlin would lose his. No chance. But for once, Bolt started the race well. At 40m he was actually ahead – just – but then Gatlin drew into the lead. For a terror-edged moment it looked as if Gatlin was pulling away. But instead, he seemed to slow down.

What was happening? Bolt was coming in hot, Gatlin, into a force-ten hurricane. Was Destiny showing her hand, or did the American, when it really mattered, bottle it? Because, by one-hundredth of a second, via a storming finish and a floundering rival, Bolt had won. He had actually won. As Gatlin grinned ruefully and Steve Cram got throaty with relief and joy, a knowing smile played across Bolt’s face. A minute later, there he was pulling his scene-stealing ‘lightening bolt’ pose. The Beijing crowd were rapturous. The saviour of athletics had laid another gift at his sport’s feet.

When you get beaten by Bolt, you stay beaten. Come the 200m later in the week – his favourite event – Bolt’s road to glory was clear before him. He defeated Gatlin with ease, in a world-leading time of 19.55 seconds. Perhaps Gatlin should be grateful. Thanks to Bolt (twice, and once more for good measure in the relay), he was spared the dubious distinction of being the most controversial winner in athletics history.

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