No easy task to find new lead­ing man for 100m

Dop­ing con­tro­ver­sies and lack of star qual­ity have turned off fans since Bolt’s re­tire­ment

The Daily Telegraph - Sport - - Athletics - Oliver Brown CHIEF SPORTS FEA­TURE WRITER in Doha

When Justin Gatlin mist­imed his dip for the line in Bei­jing four sum­mers ago, hand­ing Usain Bolt a third 100me­tres gold medal at the World Cham­pi­onships, Steve Cram screamed, with rather too much de­light for his own dig­nity: “He has saved his ti­tle, he has saved his rep­u­ta­tion. And he may even have saved his sport.” In Doha, alas, this no­tion of Bolt as the last line of de­fence against the sanc­tity of ath­let­ics no longer ap­plies.

The Ja­maican is hap­pily re­tired, pro­duc­ing mu­sic videos and cling­ing on to an in­creas­ingly re­mote dream of win­ning a pro­fes­sional foot­ball con­tract.

Tonight, it is the turn of the cho­rus line – still fea­tur­ing the con­tro­ver­sial Gatlin, 4½ years Bolt’s se­nior – to emerge from the shadow of sprint­ing’s ir­re­place­able lead­ing man.

The mo­ment has yet to be greeted with much rel­ish. For a start, there is no chance of wit­ness­ing a world record. Bolt re­drew the biome­chan­ics of the 100m to such a de­gree that his 2009 bench­mark of 9.58sec is likely to re­main un­threat­ened for a gen­er­a­tion. That is part of the sport’s nat­u­ral evo­lu­tion, but it does re­move an es­sen­tial el­e­ment of the 100’s mys­tique.

The very urge to tune into these global fi­nals springs from the an­tic­i­pa­tion of savour­ing a feat that has never been seen. This time, though, the greater feel­ing of en­nui arises from the cast list.

On the ev­i­dence of last night’s heats, this evening’s fi­nal will be a straight fight be­tween Gatlin, a two-time drug cheat, and his fel­low Amer­i­can Chris­tian Cole­man, who has caused con­ster­na­tion by fail­ing twice to de­clare his where­abouts for dop­ing tests.

The US Anti-dop­ing Agency ini­tially brought a case that he had done so three times, only for the 23-year-old to es­cape sanc­tion on a tech­ni­cal­ity. In the cir­cum­stances, one might sup­pose that Cole­man would show a shred of con­tri­tion for his lapses. As he knows only too well, he com­petes in a cli­mate where even lesser vi­o­la­tions can in­vite sus­pi­cion. In­stead, he is the one de­mand­ing an apol­ogy from Usada, shrug­ging that the mat­ter of his where­abouts had not been “front and cen­tre” of his mind at the time. If not, why not? If these cham­pi­onships do yield a star wor­thy of be­ing anointed as the face of ath­let­ics, then Cole­man, sadly, will not be it.

Michael John­son recog­nises that the furore has wrecked Cole­man’s claims to great­ness even be­fore he has had chance to make them. “It com­pletely dis­qual­i­fies him, at this point, from ever be­ing the face of the sport,” he told the BBC. “He was be­ing touted to re­place Bolt. I don’t think that will hap­pen now.”

As pres­i­dent of the In­ter­na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of Ath­let­ics Fed­er­a­tions, Lord Coe made it a pri­or­ity of his first term to toughen up the anti-dop­ing sys­tem at all lev­els, but ar­gued here that he wel­comed the sight of Cole­man in Doha.

“One missed where­abouts should ring alarm bells,” he said. “But the de­ci­sion by Usada to re­view their rules is a sen­si­ble one. We have to be very care­ful not to play fast and loose with ath­letes’ rep­u­ta­tions. I’m pleased that Cole­man is here, and I want to make sure he is given ev­ery op­por­tu­nity to be one of the faces of these cham­pi­onships.”

At its heart, the men’s 100m should be the most glo­ri­ously sim­ple en­ter­prise. But with the stakes so lofty, das­tardly meth­ods in­trude. The Olympic fi­nal in Seoul 31 years ago is still con­sid­ered the dirt­i­est race in his­tory, cour­tesy of Ben John­son and his un­scrupu­lous peers. Do not as­sume, ei­ther, that such a stain has been ex­punged. It is the most damn­ing in­dict­ment of the 100m that, of the six men to have run un­der 9.79, only Bolt has done so with­out be­ing found guilty of a dop­ing of­fence.

This back­ground ex­plains why Cole­man’s trans­gres­sion is far more dam­ag­ing than he ap­pre­ci­ates. And yet for the sake of ath­let­ics’ fu­ture, a path through the murk must be found. Richard Kilty, the Bri­tish cap­tain, is one who re­fuses to ac­cept that the 100m has lost its lus­tre. “Now it’s more ex­cit­ing. You don’t know who’s go­ing to get the medals,” he said. “Peo­ple aren’t run­ning as fast, but that shouldn’t bring dis­re­spect to any of us.”

No one should pre­tend that the Bolt era was per­fect. His vic­to­ries were all but pre­or­dained, and his dom­i­nance over such a pro­longed pe­riod pre­cluded any se­ri­ous ri­val­ries. But he un­der­stood how to cre­ate elec­tric­ity. This is the qual­ity that Doha’s in­stal­ment of the men’s 100m, ath­let­ics’ mar­quee event, most con­spic­u­ously lacks. Tonight will prove that in the sport’s rest­less search for its next tran­scen­dent fig­ure, there is no easy fix.

Di­vi­sive fig­ure: Justin Gatlin in ac­tion dur­ing the 100m heats in Doha yes­ter­day

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