Going for gold
Can the Jamaican star save athletics?
Since he coasted to the 100m finish line in world-record time at the Bird’s Nest eight years ago, Usain Bolt has been the smiling face of track and field. He has served as the anchorman of the Olympics - virtually the only reason any casual fan would pay attention to a sport that has orchestrated its own slow, sad, drug-infused downfall.
His tender hamstring improving, Bolt will be back for a final go-round at Olympic glory when the athletics start in Rio on August 12.
If, as expected, he wins all three sprint events - the 100m, 200m and 4x100m relay - he’ll only add to his legacy and cement himself at the fore of any conversation about “Greatest Olympian Ever”. He is already the first person to win back-to-back Olympic gold at 100 and 200 metres.
Whether viewed over the six days he runs in Rio, or over the eight years he’s graced the world with his once-in-alifetime mix of speed, smiles and showmanship, the world’s fastest man has offered athletics a reprieve from the wasteland of corrupt countries, reshuffled medals and win-at-any-cost malfeasance it has become.
Russian athletes will be absent from this year’s Olympic track meet - banned by the sport’s governing body, the IAAF, which contributed to the problems as much as solved them over the years.
Even with those 67 athletes out of the mix, the 10-day meet is bound to be filled with suspicious glances among the 2,000-plus runners, throwers and jumpers who will be present - all wondering if they’ll get a fair shot in a sport that once defined the Olympics but is hurting because its leaders have proven themselves either unwilling or unable to stop all the cheating.
Russia’s world-record pole vaulter, Yelena Isinbayeva, is among those staying home. She says the remaining track-and-field athletes will be competing only for “pseudo-gold” medals without the Russians running in Rio. That’s not so much Bolt’s concern. Over the past four years, only one man, American Justin Gatlin - the 2004 100m gold medalist who, himself, has served two doping bans - has been able to seriously challenge Bolt at either 100 or 200 metres. More than racing against Gatlin, though, Bolt is racing against the clock - and into history.
And yet, the doping scourge doesn’t elude him, either. His relay medal from 2008 is in jeopardy now, thanks to retests conducted by the IOC that indicate teammate Nesta Carter could have used a banned substance. In the past, the IOC has stripped entire relay teams of medals even when only one person dopes. At almost every stop he makes, Bolt is asked about doping.
In an interview before his tune-up race in London in July, he showed off the BandAid covering the mark where testers had drawn their latest tube full of blood.
“Rules are rules and doping violations in track and field is getting really bad, so if you feel like you need to make a statement then thumbs up,” Bolt said of the Russian ban.
He has never tested positive, has mostly managed to smile through the thinly veiled questions about his own doping virtue, and, when the stakes are greatest, has rarely failed to put on a show people want to watch.
The next act starts with 100m qualifying on August 13. Bolt, who turns 30 on the day of the closing ceremony in Rio, has said he’ll hang up the spikes after an encore season in 2017, but more recently has left the door slightly cracked for racing beyond that.
When he does leave, his sport will start the search for a new face - a new distraction, perhaps, from the problems that come at this sport from almost every angle.
‘If you feel like you need to make a statement then thumbs up.’ – USAIN BOLT