Men’s Olympic 100m final in Rio is being billed as a showdown between good and evil with the champion confident he can succeed again
The full story of the men’s 100m Olympic final will not play out for another fortnight, but its rolling narrative is long established. Light and dark. Good and evil. Usain Bolt versus Justin Gatlin.
It is not quite that simple as there is talk in Jamaica that Yohan Blake has found God – and his legs again – having finally put various injuries behind him. He may yet figure and crudely painting Gatlin as athletics’ ultimate super-baddie also appears a little over the top given that senior officials at the IAAF, track and field’s governing body, were banned for life this year for demanding bribes to hide positive Russian doping tests.
For all the scandals and insinuations that have beset the sport in recent years much of the planet will watching at 10.25pm Rio time (2.25am BST) on 13 August to see a Jamaican and an American go head to head for the title of the world’s fastest man.
As Bolt put it: “World records are great, but they can be broken. World championship medals are also fantastic, but only in the world of track and field. Outside the world of athletics the worlds don’t really have a big following. But the Olympics – the whole world knows what that is. It is the greatest spectacle on earth. When the 100m Olympics final is on, everyone says: ‘Usain Bolt is running. Turn over and let’s watch.’”
When Bolt arrived at Galeão International Airport in Rio on Thursday he was asked whether he had dreamed about gold medals during his long flight. His reply was brisk. “I didn’t sleep at all.” His mind was already on the business at hand: retaining his Olympic 100m, 200m and 4x100m titles from London 2012 and Beijing four years earlier.
Bolt showed no ill-effects from a hamstring strain that forced him to miss the finals in the Jamaican trials this month when running a sharp 19.89sec in the 200m at the Anniversary Games in London despite tiring in the last 50m. The Jamaican journalist Andre Lowe, who is close to Bolt, expects him to go much quicker in Rio.
“He was extremely encouraged by that run, even though he is still not physically at his peak,” he said. “Remember, while he missed two weeks of training because of his hamstring strain, before then he was in excellent shape. In June, he ran 9.88sec for the 100m despite having a terrible technical race. The 100m can be tricky for Usain because of the importance of the start, but I expect him to run around 9.65-9.68sec in Rio. That is more than enough to get him gold.”
Last year, there was an epic dress rehearsal at the world championships in Beijing. Gatlin entered the final as favourite, only to stumble and crumble a few metres before the line. Bolt held his nerve, and his title, by coming through in 9.79sec – 0.01sec in front of Gatlin. In Rio, the stakes and pressure will be even more turbocharged. The crucial difference could be that Bolt believes he is in a far better place 12 months on.
In this month’s Runners’ World he said he felt huge pressure in Beijing. “Everywhere I went last year it was all anybody wanted to talk about: ‘If Usain loses, the sport is over.’ ‘He can’t let Gatlin win.’ ‘The future of the sport is in Bolt’s hands.’ All that.”
That he was short of fitness and form only added to his burden. In the semi‑final he stumbled out of the blocks, forcing him to push hard in the last 30 metres just to qualify for the final. “When I’m not in great shape – and I wasn’t last year – my start plays on my mind because I don’t have the best one,” he said. “If I’m in good shape I can catch Gatlin no matter what, but last year he was in good form and I wasn’t so I was thinking: ‘If I get a bad start, it’s over.’
“My coach told me to relax, that I was the legend, I was the champion and it was Gatlin’s job to worry about me. All I had to do was what I normally do and I would win. That helped chill me out a lot. I let go of the stress after that.”
Bolt said he saw Gatlin fall apart in the final. “The pressure of the line approaching got to him. He was falling over and all sorts. And then I timed the dip right. I knew I had it because I looked to the right on the line and he wasn’t there. There was just fresh air. He was looking at the screen to see who had won, but I knew it was me.”
Will it be any different in Rio? This year, like last, Gatlin tops the 100m rankings, but while in 2015 he was consistently running in the 9.70s, scorching away from his rivals at the start and putting the race to bed by halfway, this year he has not run quicker than 9.80sec. There are two ways of looking at this: Gatlin, who suffered a bad ankle injury during the off-season, has either learned his lesson from last year and is peaking better for Rio or, at 34, he is slowly on the wane.
Even if he is in 9.7 shape Gatlin will have to show he can deal with the media questioning him about his past, as they did in Beijing, without being ruffled. His team point out — with some justification — that too often he is referred to as a two-times drug cheat without important context: his first doping violation, in 2001, was for trace amounts of amphetamine that were in Adderall medication he had been taking since he was a child for attention deficit disorder. The United States Anti-Doping report said at the time: “Mr Gatlin neither cheated nor intended to cheat.” Such nuance has long got lost in the wash.
Some also believe Gatlin’s failure to win in Beijing when favourite has a predictive value, because it shows he will buckle under pressure again in Rio. However, in a recent interview, the American insisted he took strength from his failure. “I lost myself towards the end of that race, and I want to be able to stay focused when it’s time,” he said.
“I just want to be myself, have fun with it, and at the same time show my competitive spirit. But win or lose, when you run against me you’re going to have to run really good.”
Bolt has also been thinking about the 100m final and that impending rematch. “I’m looking forward to it,” he said, before making clear he is no doubt about the result. “This is where history is going to be made.”