Five Rings gives an in-depth look at an event, athlete, or trend in the Olympic sports world and the Olympic movement. In this edition, David DeGuzman examines why Sunday’s men’s 100m final in Beijing should be considered the best ever run in the event’s history.
On Sunday, August 23, 2015, nine men took the blocks behind the start line inside Beijing National Stadium. The Bird’s Nest, as the venue is nicknamed, had already hosted incredible history seven years earlier during the Games of the XXVIII Olympiad. But what transpired on this warm evening in the Chinese capital over the span of 9.79 seconds should go down in the record books as the most significant and memorable men’s 100 meter final ever. And the reasons go beyond the much-hyped battle of “good versus evil” that was labeled on the match-up between Usain Bolt and Justin Gatlin.
Yes, it’s those two main characters that made the headlines and had Twitter buzzing across the globe. The path both men went through to get to the world championship final already made this race a mouth-watering, must-see event. But considering how the track and field is currently at a crossroads, facing quite possibly the biggest doping scandal in the sport’s history, and then add several subplots from the other contenders in the field, you’ve got a race that was simply made to become an ESPN 30 for 30 film in the near future.
The Road To ‘Bolt vs. Gatlin’
On paper, this race easily appealed to the sprint die-hards of the world. Justin Gatlin won the Olympic gold medal in the men’s 100 meters in Athens before Usain Bolt exploded on to the sprint scene to capture gold in both Beijing and London. And when it comes to world championships, Bolt has never lost a 100 meter race that he’s started, winning in 2009 and 2013 (Bolt was DQed for a false start in 2011, which was won by fellow Jamaican Yohan Blake).
But Bolt entered this year’s world championships as the underdog. Hampered by injuries, Bolt missed the majority of the 2014 season. His only race this year in the lead-up to Beijing was in London, where the Jamaican won the 100 meters in 9.87 seconds after pulling out of Diamond League meets in Paris and Lausaunne.
Even in Beijing, there were doubts that Bolt could defend his world title after nearly stumbling from the blocks in his semifinal heat, forcing him to chase the rest of the field down. Bolt still won his heat in 9.96 seconds, but his performance wasn’t anywhere close to how he dominated opponents in past major meets.
Hope of a Bolt vs Gatlin matchup nearly ended with Bolt face down on the tartan 15m into semi. https://t.co/e4nkAexoZI Final is in 2 hours
— Ross Tucker (@Scienceofsport) August 23, 2015
In Bolt’s absence, Gatlin stole the spotlight and became the favorite. The American (still) holds the fastest time in the world in the 100 meters after sprinting down the lane in a time of 9.74 seconds in Doha back in May. He had never lost a race in either the 100 or 200 meter event since 2013. And while Bolt nearly missed qualifying for the final, Gatlin put on a clinic in his semifinal heat, using a great start to power his way into the final in a time of 9.77 seconds, nearly two-tenths faster that Bolt’s qualifying time.
When the field was set, the notion that Gatlin, not Bolt, was the favorite to win a world championship was clearer than the polluted Beijing sky.
Doping And The Creation Of ‘Good vs. Evil’
Cheating in athletics is nothing new. The 1988 men’s 100m final in Seoul, South Korea is probably the most famous example used when looking back at the history of doping in track and field.
But Sunday’s final came at a time when the sport is at a crossroads. Earlier this summer, investigative reports from both German broadcaster ARD and Great Britain’s The Sunday Times found that 146 Olympic and world championship medals in middle- and long-distance races were won by athletes who recorded suspicious tests. The IAAF responded to those claims, denying the allegations of widespread doping and calling the media reports a ‘declaration of war’ on the sport.
And looking at the field of contenders for the 100 meter race in Beijing, it’s no wonder why the media billed Sunday’s race as a battle of ‘good versus evil’. Tyson Gay served a one-year doping suspension by the United States Anti-Doping Agency after testing positive for anabolic steroids in 2013. He was stripped of his silver medal that he won with the 4×100 relay team at London 2012, with all of his results from July of that year erased from the history books. Bolt said earlier this year that Gay should have been “kicked out of the sport”.
Asafa Powell has also had a history of doping, failing a drug test in June 2013. The former world record holder in the 100 meters was originally sentenced to an 18-month suspension for taking a banned stimulant. But his suspension was reduced to six months on appeal.
Then there’s Justin Gatlin, who served not one, but two separate doping suspensions. His first offense came in 2001 while Gatlin was still in college. The American was handed a two-year ban for taking a banned amphetamine. Then after winning double gold at the 2005 World Championships, Gatlin tested positive for testosterone in 2006. His punishment was originally an eight-year suspension, avoiding a lifetime ban for cooperating with doping authorities. An appeal resulted in getting his suspension cut in half to a four-year sentence, served between 2006 and 2010.
Meanwhile, Bolt has won all his races clean, making him the hero while Gatlin has been labeled as the villain. Headlines leading up to the world championships placed responsibility on the two-time Olympic 100 meter champion to “save the soul of the sport”. As doping became the center of attention of press conferences leading up to the meet, Bolt told the media that he can’t save track and field from doping scandals by himself.
That may be true, but Bolt, as the most recognizable face in track, can certainly lead the fight and change public perception. Whether or not the athletes themselves bought into the notion of ‘good vs. evil’, there’s no question that billing Sunday’s final that way is an easy way to gauge interest. And the sport could certainly use the attention at a time when athletics is facing its biggest public relations obstacle of its time. The stage was set, the future of athletics depended on Bolt delivering on the global stage.
The Stage: The Bird’s Nest
Speaking of stages, there’s no better venue for Bolt to become a hero than the track where he got his start. When he won double gold in 2008, Bolt instantly became one of the biggest headlines to come out of the Olympics that year. And it was the way that he dominated in each of his races, with world records in all three gold medal events, that told us that what we were watching was something special. Bolt is one of those athletes that you only see once in a generation.
It makes sense for a one-of-a-kind athlete to thrive in such a unique a setting as the Bird’s Nest, where a twisted steel facade erected to display China’s prominence on the world stage would house the world’s best athletes. It hid what was really happening in China, where economic issues and a plummeting currency has impacted the global economy during these World Championships.
The parallels are hard to ignore. Both China and Usain Bolt looking to reclaim the dominant image that they once had. And for 9.79 seconds, that’s exactly what would happen.
The Subplots: From China’s Hope To Canada’s Youth
Bolt and Gatlin only made up two of the nine athletes that took the blocks shortly after 9:15 in the evening.
In an event that’s been dominated by Americans and Jamaicans in recent years, the host nation saw one of its own have a shot at history. Su Bingtian became the first competitor from Asia to make a 100 meter final at a world championships, recording a time of 9.99 in the semifinal heats to become part of the final nine in an event that usually only has eight finalists. But France’s Jimmy Vicault also recorded 9.99 in the semifinals, creating a tie for the final qualifying spot.
Then there’s Canada’s Andre De Grasse, an NCAA champion with the University of Southern California who’s having a breakout year in the sport. De Grasse won national collegiate titles in both the 100 and 200 meters, in the span of an hour no less, before claiming double gold again at the Pan American Games on his home soil in Toronto earlier this summer. His achievements have led him to the biggest stage yet, as he becomes Canada’s biggest track star since Donovan Bailey won Olympic gold in Atlanta.
So you take all of that context and put it together into an event that takes less than ten seconds to complete and decides who earns the title of ‘World’s Fastest Man’. A classic meeting of former sprint champions. Locked in a battle of good versus evil with the future of the sport at stake. Inside a venue once home to Olympic greatness. With others looking to steal some of the spotlight.
And in 9.79 seconds, it was all over.
A description of how it unfolded, from The Associated Press (via the Chicago Tribune):
That Gatlin burst from the blocks faster was no surprise; Bolt was his typically slow self in unfurling his 6-foot-5 frame from the start.
That Gatlin was winning at the halfway point wasn’t too shocking, either. “The best part of my race is usually the end,” Bolt said.
At 80 meters, the math started changing. Bolt drew to within a step but Gatlin was holding him off.
Then, with about 15 meters left, Gatlin over-strided, then did it again, then started leaning toward the line. Bolt stayed upright, crossed with a big kick and with his chest pushed forward. A sliver of space for a man who wins by body lengths.
In the end, China had someone to root for at the Bird’s Nest. And though Su Bingtian finished last, the Chinese record holder made it hard for others to ignore the roar of the crowd when he was introduced in the field of nine in an event normally reserved for eight.
In the end, we found out the future of the sport may be in good hands, thanks to a young Canadian who made history by getting on the podium, even if he wasn’t alone on the third step. Andre De Grasse ran the 100 meter final in a personal best time of 9.92, tying American Trayvon Bromell, to become the first Canadian to medal at a world championships since 1999. De Grasse, just 20 years old, now faces a decision of whether to stay in school or turn pro and profit on a lucrative shoe scholarship in an Olympic year. Not a bad problem to have for an athlete who could easily be the next face of track and field.
In the end, Bolt prevailed on a night when he faced so much doubt. In the context of how the media constructed this race, good defeated evil, barely. By a hundredth of a second. The soul of the sport saved in the narrowest of victories. But even by the thinnest of margins, Bolt proved that he can deliver on one of the sport’s biggest stages and rise to the occasion. The Bird’s Nest is Bolt’s turf and he defended it. He’s still the king. And with that, Bolt became just the third man to win three world championship titles in the 100 meters, joining Carl Lewis and Maurice Greene.
The story would’ve been different had Gatlin not lost his balance in the closing strides of the race. But that’s what makes the event a spectacle. You don’t know when lightning will strike, but when it does it’s a sight to see.
The men’s 100 meter final at the Beijing 2015 World Championships. It wasn’t the fastest performance in history. But it was the best race ever run in the history of the event.
That is, until next year when two could collide in Rio.
BBC’s coverage of the race seemed pretty biased towards Bolt. And Gatlin’s agent noticed. The world silver-medalist will apparently boycott the BBC and the British media. (RadioTimes, Bleacher Report, The Guardian)
Speaking of the BBC, one writer seems to think that Bolt’s win on Sunday was the ‘greatest miracle of all’. (BBC Sport)
How Andre De Grasse’s bronze-medal performance signified the Canadian’s arrival on the global stage. (The Globe and Mail)
Why Bolt shouldn’t be considered the ‘savior of athletics” (InsideTheGames.Biz)
Alan Abrahamson on why Sunday’s 100m final wasn’t a morality play. It was, quite simply, an excellent race. (3 Wire Sports)