The men’s 100-meter dash inside Olympic Stadium was no mere footrace. It was live theater, and the stars of the Rio Games’ glamour event played their roles to the hilt.
Usain Bolt versus Justin Gatlin. Hero versus villain. Champion versus challenger. Jamaica versus U.S.A.
Bolt, who popularized his tainted sport, was running against Gatlin, the twice-penalized doper who was one of the tainted.
Spectators showed their adoration for Bolt by chanting his name. They showed their disdain for Gatlin by booing, a sound so sourly unnerving that even Bolt was taken aback.
Bolt won the race in 9.81 seconds, not a blistering time but fine enough for his record third consecutive Olympic gold and fine enough to win by a margin so comfortable that he was able to tap his heart with his fist, then lift an index finger as he crossed the line. He finished with a photogenic flourish, just as he did in Beijing and London.
Gatlin had a technically clean start compared to Bolt’s slow one, but as usual it wasn’t enough to hold off the 6-5 Bolt once he got his eight-foot stride rolling. Although Bolt’s height puts him at an aerodynamic disadvantage, his long legs permit him to take three to five fewer strides in the 100 than the average sprinter.
Bolt won, Gatlin lost, and just about everybody was happy with the result because if Gatlin had won it would have been awkward, and more boos would have marred track and field’s big night.
A neat little morality play concluded in 10 seconds with the right ending.
Doping makes things messy at the Olympics. Hypocrisy permeates the air in Rio, and it doesn’t smell nice. Double standards, conflicts of interest, finger-pointing.
Because the International Olympic Committee bungled its decision on whether to ban Russian athletes and because the World Anti-Doping Agency was slow to react to whistleblowers’ allegations of state-sponsored doping and coverups in Russia, Rio 2016 will always have an asterisk next to its entry in the history books. This will go down as the Olympics when Russia was banned, sort of, but Kenya and Ethiopia were not, despite irregularities in their national anti-doping agencies. Any Russian athlete who had a record of a failed test was supposed to be banned, but Gatlin, Tyson Gay, and Jamaica’s Yohan Blake and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce (who tested positive for the narcotic oxycodone) among dozens of others were not. Jamaica’s Nesta Carter was one of the athletes whose sample from the 2008 Olympics retested as positive, putting into jeopardy Bolt’s gold from the 400 relay.
Russian swimmer Yulia Efimova was castigated as a drug cheat by American Lilly King, who must not be familiar with the Jessica Hardy case. Efimova trains at USC and lives in Los Angeles, not Russia, and bought the supplement that triggered her positive test at a GNC store. King also said an ex-doper like Gatlin shouldn’t be allowed on the U.S. Olympic team.
Gatlin says it is “hurtful” to him and his family to be “labeled” as a bad guy 10 years after he was exiled from the sport.
“I served that time,” Gatlin said. “The system works.”
Yet the benefits of performance-enhancing drugs can live on for years, and have already given their users training and recovery advantages, hence the feeling by clean athletes that once a doper, always a doper.
So the line gets smeared, as do athletes’ reputations. Not a day goes by at the Olympics that a doping issue doesn’t come to the fore. Next to the medal table they ought to also keep tallies on a doping table.
What’s needed is an overhaul of the anti-doping system and its rules of punishment from the IOC on down through each sport federation and national Olympic committee.
Don’t scorn the athlete, blame the system that allows them to get away with cheating, said Michael Johnson, whose 17-year-old world record in the 400 was smashed Sunday by a South African whose margin of victory immediately raised eyebrows.
“No sport is ever going to be 100 percent clean,” he said. “You are always going to have people who will cheat, and sport is just a microcosm of society. But your law enforcement and judicial system has to be good, so that it deters people and it punishes people when they do wrong. We need a better system.”
Then we can all sit back and enjoy an amazing race like Sunday’s Rumble in Rio free of skepticism or cynicism.
Let’s hope Bolt is and remains clean, fueled only by yams and McNuggets. Because if the man who saved his troubled sport isn’t clean, the damage would be worse than in the case of Lance Armstrong.