Seven years ago Usain Bolt thundered down the track in Beijing’s Bird’s Nest, winning the world’s adoration whilst coasting to the 100 metre world record. The man whose mantle he snatched to become Olympic champion Justin Gatlin was nowhere to be seen. Vanquished from the world of athletics, he was a disgraced drugs cheat serving his second ban for the use of a banned substance. Tomorrow evening however, provided they both take their places in the World Championship final (2.15 PM GMT), Gatlin will line up alongside Bolt in the very same stadium as the man to beat in a morally charged clash dubbed a duel for the future of athletics. A Gatlin win for many, represents the final straw in a dismal year. The knockout blow for a sport battered by allegations of widespread drug usage amongst top athletes. For the sake of a track and field universe falling to pieces as we speak, the squeaky clean and self-assured Jamaican must find a way to win. The question is; against perhaps the most formidable foe he’s ever encountered can he once again find a way to triumph?
Athletics and indeed sport, has never seen a man like Bolt. An athlete who shines on the greatest stages whilst defying belief with each and every stride. His propensity for performing when the chips are down has become the stuff of legend. As of 2013 however that legend has come under threat like never before. A shadowy figure emerged from exile and has proceeded to plunder Bolt’s kingdom. That figure was Justin Gatlin. The man who sat and plotted his comeback on the other side of the world whilst Bolt inherited his crown in Beijing. Returning in 2010, the American slowly but surely worked his way back to the top of the athletics world. He pipped his compatriot Tyson Gay to an Olympic bronze medal in 2012 before beginning his ascent the following year, asserting a dominance over the 100 metres not even Bolt himself has been able to resist.
A Gatlin win for many, represents the final straw in a dismal year, the knockout blow for a sport battered by allegations of widespread drug usage
As the Jamaican’s focus wavered and injuries slowed him down, the 33 year old Gatlin has confounded belief with his startling level of consistency. Conventional wisdom says men that old aren’t meant to run that fast. Headed into the World Championships he’s won 27 races on the trot. There’s been no sign of let up this year either. He breezed to victory in Doha crossing the line in a time 9.74 seconds, a personal best. Whilst the naysayers cried foul, Gatlin just kept on winning. They wept when Nike decided to endorse the American and yelped when he blasted the competition at the American Championships in the 200 metres, clocking a time of 19.57 seconds- a personal best over the longer sprinting distance. Based on current form he’s in line to strip Bolt of both his 100 and 200 metre crowns.
Gatlin is public enemy number one, and has been since he returned, a role he relishes. He celebrates his victories with an unabashed bravado, posturing for the camera after each and every win, a degree of self confidence that has ruffled more than a few feathers. Although he’s protested his innocence for a number of years, arguing he mistakenly took testosterone in a cream used by his masseuse- the incident that lead to his second ban; most choose to ignore his cries. They see him as a surly and defiant threat to to the integrity of a sport bereft of any transparency or honesty. The Sunday Times’ astounding revelations that a third of endurance events at major championships were won by athletes with suspicious blood tests has only added fuel to the fire of suspicion, a blaze set to become an all consuming inferno if Gatlin crosses the tape with Bolt in his wake.
As the world rolled their eyes and the doubts surrounding the legitimacy of track and field steadily grew, there was one certainty. One continuous fact that offered the sport welcome respite from the scepticism. Usain Bolt was clean, and more importantly, Usain Bolt was incredible. With athletics in a rut, the establishment needs Bolt now more than ever. He’s trotted the globe as the sport’s poster boy fronting many an advertising campaign and dazzling stadium after stadium with his unique aura and personality. Seeing Bolt in the flesh is an experience akin to seeing the pope or the president. However, for all all the respect he commands off the track, it’s become increasingly apparent Bolt will never again scale the heights of that sweaty night in Beijing, as his form has tailed off dramatically in recent years.
Usain Bolt was clean, and more importantly Usain Bolt was incredible.
In 2014 he was unconvincing and this year he’s been little better. 9.87 on a wet evening in London the highlight of a year largely spent on the sidelines. Yesterday’s heats provided little indication Bolt is ready to step up to the plate and deny Gatlin either. He laboured to victory whilst the American punched out a ruthless win in his opening race, an impressive and easy time of 9.83 seconds. Regardless of how indifferent Bolt’s form has been since he held off Gatlin at the 2013 World Championships in Moscow to win the 100 metre title, there’s an old adage that seems to suit the Jamaican: cometh the hour, cometh the man. No man rises to the occasion like the lightening Bolt. He emerged from a similar malaise to conquer Yohan Blake at the London Olympics and Gatlin will be weary of the threat he poses when the stakes are at their highest.
Sporting battles mean that much more when they’re morally charged. This is being billed as a battle between good and evil, the insidious, snarling drugs cheat against the relaxed and personable champion. If Gatlin somehow finds a way to do the unthinkable and best Usain Bolt from gun to tape with a gold medal at stake, it would leave him the most unpopular sprint World Champion of all time. It would also be a hugely impressive feat, a reward for his mastery of the event week in week out. We have a hero, we have a villain, we have a track and we have a historic venue. Once the duo take up their places in the blocks and the starting gun rings off around the Bird’s Nest, it won’t just be a race. This will be a battle for the soul of a tortured sport in which there can only be one winner.