When Usain Bolt crossed the line 0.01 seconds ahead of his twice-banned American rival Justin Gatlin to retain his world 100m title, it wasn’t just yet another victory over the doubters. For those who had painted this battle as a nothing less than clash of good against evil in light of the doping issues that have left this sport on life support, Bolt’s victory in the Bird’s Nest stadium, where he made his name, may have even secured its future.
“He’s saved his title, he’s saved his reputation – he may have even saved his sport,” enthused BBC commentator and former world champion Steve Cram as Bolt crossed the line in 9.79 seconds, fractionally ahead of the seemingly unassailable Gatlin.
At 33, the American sprinter was unbeaten in 29 races and had recorded the fastest times in the world this year. Gatlin had sailed through his semi-final with ease, while Bolt, who has carried athletics on his shoulders for seven years but has struggled for form this season, looked uncharacteristically nervous as he crept through. Yet by the end, Bolt was striking his familiar poses and cavorting on the track in the manner to which his fans have become accustomed.
“One can overdramatise these things. But if you felt the impact in the stadium, you’ll understand just how much every athletics fan really wanted Bolt to win,” said Ed Warner, chairman of UK Athletics, which is currently conducting a review of strenuously denied doping allegations levelled at long distance runner Mo Farah’s coach, Alberto Salazar.
The depth of the sport’s credibility issues were highlighted by the fact that four of the nine athletes in the sprint final had served bans for doping. As well as the Gatlin, who has become the bogeyman for those who believe the sport has been soft on cheats, his American team-mates, Tyson Gay and Mike Rodgers have also served suspensions. And there was consternation when Asafa Powell, Bolt’s Jamaican team-mate, was named captain of the national squad, given his own doping ban last year.
To many, Gatlin, running faster than ever a decade after he won Olympic gold, remains in denial. His first ban in 2002 was reduced when he proved that the amphetamines found in his system were from medication he had been taking to treat attention deficit disorder. His second, an eight-year ban later halved to four, was blamed on testosterone cream rubbed into his buttocks by a masseuse with a grudge.
When Gatlin was penalised for the second time, his coach was Trevor Graham, who the sprinter Dennis Mitchell once claimed at a trial had injected him with human growth hormone. To the consternation of some former American athletes, Mitchell is now a coach to Gatlin and others on the US team.
Nike, the company that bankrolls US Track & Field, British Athletics and many of the biggest stars in the sport, was widely criticised for handing Gatlin a lucrative sponsorship deal. The sprinter himself, popular among many of his team-mates, has refused to accept his role as the sport’s biggest sinner. Asked three times at the post-race press conference about his doping past, Gatlin replied: “I’m thankful.”
By his side, Bolt, who has been reluctant to accept the role of the sport’s saviour thrust upon him by media and fans, sniggered. Gatlin’s questioner walked out in disgust.
For critics, that vignette says much about the scale of the challenge faced by the sport, despite Bolt’s electrifying performance. Beyond platitudes, few are prepared to discuss a matter that has dogged it for decades, though Bolt did say afterwards that he had showed the world it was possible to win clean by securing his toughest ever victory.
In the buildup to this race, the IAAF, which will be led by Sebastian Coe once these championships are over, has been on the back foot, fighting a desperate rearguard action to try to convince a sceptical world it is doing enough to stand up to the threat of doping. A database leaked to German broadcaster ARD suggested that up to a third of endurance medals at major championships over a decade had been won by athletes with suspicious blood values.
At these world championships, 66 competitors have formerly been banned. In some parts of the world, doping is rumoured to be rife. Late last year, detailed allegations were made about systematic doping in Russia, and wider corruption and coverup. An independent ethics committee is due to report on the allegations after the championships.
For Tyree Washington, an American former 400m world champion who lost his relay gold medal from the 2003 world championships when his team-mates were convicted of doping, the integrity of the sport has been compromised almost beyond repair. “People look at athletics like it’s a circus, like it’s a freak show. I’m tired of that. I love my sport. It has to be toughened up so that if you test positive you’re banned for life,” he said.
“Usain Bolt has said it can’t just be him alone who saves the sport. He’s right. Lord Coe has to come in and get in hard and really set a precedent that we are not going to tolerate this. It makes my soul cringe.”
For all the euphoria over Bolt’s victory, the sport is far from saved yet.
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