The men’s 100m final at the 2015 World Championships was considered by many to be a battle for the soul of track and field, with Usain Bolt cast as the good guy, and Justin Gatlin (among others) cast as the villain. In this morality play, a Bolt victory would prove that a clean athlete could win, even in an event with a long history of harboring cheaters. A Gatlin victory would prove — what? — that cheating pays off eventually, because the effects last long after the initial offence?
For many reasons, I thought the theme of “100m race as morality play” was over wrought. As Tim Layden of Sports Illustrated put it a few days before the final, “The polarization here is out of proportion to any moment. If Bolt crushes Gatlin Sunday, not all is right with the sport. If Gatlin beats Bolt, not all is lost.” (“Usain Bolt vs. Justin Gatlin: 100 meters for the soul of track?“)
Let’s leave aside for the moment what a strange thing it see Usain Bolt representing the wholesome purity of athletics, and instead consider how narrowly we have to squint to believe that Justin Gatlin represents all that is wrong with track and field today. If one believes in lifetime bans, then yes, Gatlin would never have competed after receiving an eight-year ban in 2006 for testing positive (later reduced to four years for cooperation with investigators). But given the possibility of returning to the sport, Gatlin has made the most of his opportunity, improving his times over the last few years to the point where he is running world-leading, personal best times. And that’s the troubling thing: it’s hard to accept that Gatlin is clean because his performances at age 33 make him such an outlier. But as Layden points out, Bolt is an outlier, too, and “damning athletes for excellence sends us all down a bottomless rabbit hole.”
The greatest threat to the future of professional track and field might not be performance-enhancing drugs, per se; it might be that professional track and field will simply become irrelevant, finally incapable of holding our interest or stirring our passions. The pernicious nature of PEDs is that they are a means of destroying our interest by making every result, no matter how stunning it might have seemed on the surface, appear fake and manufactured. The wages of such cheating are that it robs the sport of its power to inspire.
For the better part of a decade, Bolt has been the least boring athlete in track and field. The combination of his massive talent and Megawatt personality has been a boon to the sport in desperate need of boons. Not only has he made his case as the greatest sprinter of all time, there’s no one who even comes close in making athletic greatness look like so much fun. It’s always a party when Usain is on the track. Well, perhaps not in the heats and semi-finals in Beijing. Bolt admitted he was thinking and trying too hard, worried, perhaps, that he really might not be the fastest man on the track this time.
The final had one of the most impressive 100m fields in history. Never before had a championship final featured three current or former world champions, with Gatlin (2005), Bolt (2009, 2013), and Tyson Gay (2007). In addition, there were three current or former world record holders (Gatlin, Bolt, and Asafa Powell).
The race itself was fascinating and thrilling. Neither Gatlin nor Bolt had a great start, but Gatlin was slightly ahead in the early going. As the two pulled away from the rest of the field, Bolt appeared to be gaining inch-by-inch, but would it be enough? About 7m from the line, Gatlin appeared to lean forward prematurely, losing his balance and losing momentum. Bolt, by contrast, waited until the last moment to lean his torso forward, and that was the difference, Bolt crossing the line at 9.79 to Gatlin’s 9.80. Behind them, the two NCAA rivals Trayvon Bromell and Andre de Grasse leaned for the line and finished in an incredible and unprecedented tie for the bronze medal.
Usain Bolt didn’t save track and field with his victory. But the race with Gatlin had so much drama, both before and during the actual running, that it reminded us how exciting it can be to watch a simple footrace. Perhaps both Bolt and Gatlin deserve the credit for that, by making this race matter, and then delivering performances that — in slightly under ten seconds — provided drama on an Olympic scale. It was, as they say (but not often enough in track and field), worth the price of admission.[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q3h0sadCa10]