Despite his failure to win the men’s 100m final and the botched finish in the relay, the Jamaican left with his legacy intact. How dearly would athletics want to be in his place.
Priyansh is a sports writer.
Usain Bolt is known to set the track on fire. But by the time his final race finished, he was hobbling and “cold”. He lost. He did not finish. Bolt’s fans have come to expect surprise, wonder, amazement. He did it again, albeit in anti-climactic fashion. This was not how it was supposed to end.
There’s little room for scepticism in the church of Bolt. Despite the apprehensions that exist before his every race, the force of his will makes the whole act seem scripted. You need to suspend your imagination, yet believe that it will end well. Over the past week, though, the coda of Bolt’s career received its own cruel twist. We were wowed but not pleasantly.
It was not just about wishing a fairytale end to Bolt’s career. There were questions which went beyond the sprinter and yet were linked to him. As Bolt walked away, it was worth pondering what was left behind. Athletics’ reputation lies in tatters. Bolt was among the few redeeming lights in a discipline marred by recent scandals. Despite his failure to win the men’s 100m final and the botched finish in the relay, the Jamaican left with his legacy intact. How dearly would athletics want to be in his place.
Speaking after confirming that his decision to retire was final, Bolt said, “One championship doesn’t change what I’ve done. After losing the 100 meters someone said to me, ‘Muhammad Ali lost his last fight, so don’t be too stressed.’ I have shown my credentials throughout my career so losing my last race isn’t going to change what I’ve done in my sport.”
But a lot has changed within the wide boundaries of what is collectively called track and field sport. After years of failure to assert control over the threat of doping and corruption, athletics’ global governing body – the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) – is attempting a gradual makeover. This was recently seen in its insistence to continue Russia’s suspension for its failure to acknowledge and correct the systemic, state-sponsored doping programme, of which the country has been found guilty.
To recover further ground, IAAF’s President Sebastian Coe introduced medal reallocation ceremonies at the World Championships that concluded in London on August 13. No less than 11 athletes, in addition to five relay teams, were felicitated with new medals on account of doping violations that have surfaced through the years. A greater number of athletes may have made their way to London for the novel ceremony if not for personal commitments that left them indisposed. The reallocation reflected changes from as far back as the 2007 World Championships in Osaka.
Such steps are just fledgling ones in the road to redemption for athletics. After Bolt lost out to two-time doping offender Justin Gatlin in the 100m final, it was ironic to see Coe and Gatlin showered with boos when the sprinter was presented with the gold medal. It is worth recalling that Coe had argued for a lifetime ban for the American when he had been found guilty for the second time in 2006. Even in the aftermath of Gatlin’s win, the governing body’s president stuck to his decade-old stance.
While any such move is thought to be legally unsustainable, it is also worth arguing that a life ban may not be the most ethically sound position. It speaks of a worldview that seeks to attach the offender with the offence indefinitely. Any nuanced understanding of doping should be cognisant of the possibility that athletes are not entirely responsible for their actions. They may even turn out to be victims of a wider strategy to influence results on part of coaches or other persons of authority.
Not to forget the impunity with which those who run the sport function. Doubts still remain about Coe’s claimed unawareness of the IAAF officials’ extortion attempts to bury positive drug tests involving Russian athletes. Questions over his knowledge of other corruption scandals that affected the governing body when he was the vice-president have never really gone away either. His predecessor Lamine Diack is the subject of a French police investigation into corruption during his long tenure at the helm of the IAAF.
With evidence suggesting that maladministration was a reality at the governing body, it is a red-herring to focus on Gatlin alone. Of course, if the action on the track had not been pock-marked by doping scandals, the accusations of institutionalised corruption may not have hung as heavily as they do. But a combination of controversies has stuck to athletics with the sport failing to shake the smell of suspicion away.
It is in this light that the departing Usain Bolt is worth seeing. Like a true ambassador of athletics, he has constantly pushed for a more positive outlook in his public pronouncements. Even in the post-100m-final press conference, Bolt was quick to shut a reporter down for suggesting that the slowest winning time in a decade was a consequence of stricter doping controls. Bolt is not unaware of the gravity of the issue – but he is not going to stop looking for slivers of optimism. The Jamaican has also been openly supportive of Gatlin, as the 2004 Olympics men’s 100m champion experiences a late career resurgence. Bolt has justifiably called the booing of the American disrespectful.
Indeed, the public vilification of Gatlin is a consequence of the skewed media coverage loaded against him. He was by no means the only athlete to return from a doping ban at the World Championships, but he was arguably the most popular. Some of the mainstream media voices, particularly British, were harsher on him than they have been in the past on white athletes accused of similar or even more serious offences. It seems that black athletes like Gatlin who are at the top of their sporting discipline get fewer chances to prove their innocence.
Especially in the aftermath of the 100m final, simplistic narratives abounded. Despite the sheer irrelevance of the ‘good versus bad’ tropes, many journalists found themselves guilty of drawing water from that well. The Telegraph in the UK went with the headline ‘Usain Bolt beaten in last solo race as drug cheat Justin Gatlin gatecrashes world 100m final’. Other voices in the media could not look beyond Gatlin’s past doping offences either, even though he had won the race in question legitimately. Bolt, as the ideal hero, was perceived to have been wronged.
It is not really clear whether such coverage helps us make sense of the problems that plague athletics. Legitimate results are in danger of being discredited in the shadow of a scandal-ridden sport. While the way athletics is run by the IAAF is responsible for the lack of trust, a media trial of a former dope offender is hardly the way to address very serious problems, which remain as threatening as ever.
A recent Netflix documentary on the Russian doping scandal, Icarus, had the founder of UCLA’s Olympic Analytical Laboratory Dr. Don Catlin saying, “They’re all doping.” Well, they are not. Like the documentary, the popular discourse has been unable to look past the most obvious narratives that have encircled athletics in recent years. If indeed the sport is infected at all levels, how did Bolt manage to stay clean and yet dominate men’s sprint events for a decade?
As the triple Olympic champion walks away, it is important to cherish and pay tributes to an athlete who stayed humble and true to his vocation. But it is also a moment to reflect upon a world of athletics sans Bolt’s presence. It might be wishful to hope for the Jamaican to lead an agenda that seeks to bring athletics back to a position of respect. But even in defeat, his graceful reaction to Gatlin’s win suggested a possibility for change.
At the same time, athletics is not weaker when Bolt loses. It is a shame that he could not complete his final competitive race in the wee hours of August 13 (IST). A hobbling Bolt was perhaps an apt image for the state in which athletics finds itself. But it is worth reflecting upon the World Championships that left us with enough moments of cheer and joy to feel that a more optimistic future can exist. Bolt’s optimism might be misplaced at times but athletics is not a lost cause just yet. He is gone now but the optimism that he carried gracefully throughout his career is still hoping to thrive.
Over to you then, the IAAF.