Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Commentary: They were Looking for a Scandal, but got a Footrace Instead

By Jim Ferstle
Under different circumstances Sunday's IAAF Championships men's 100 would have been hyped as a potential race of the century.  Multi Olympic and World champion, Usain Bolt, against his recently unbeaten challenger, Justin Gatlin, also an Olympic and World champion.  Both had run world records in the 100 meters. One represented the US, the other Jamaica, two of the world's top producers of elite Olympic sprinters.

 Alas, Gatlin had flunked two drug tests.  Been banned during his prime, but was coming back and dominating the sport.  Hadn't lost a race in two years.  Bolt had never lost an Olympics or World title aside from in 2011 when he false started.  Yes, he had been hindered by injuries for the past two years, but he still is Usain Bolt, world recordholder, the dominant sprinter in the World since 2008. Bolt emerged that year in the Bird's Nest Stadium in Beijing, site of this year's IAAF Championships as well as the the 2008 Olympics.  Three gold medals. Three world records.

Gatlin had won double gold for the US in the 2005 Helsinki World Championships. His only blemish then was a doping ban when he was a collegiate runner for a stimulant that was also a medication that Gatlin had taken when being treated for Attention Deficit Disorder. He was the Bolt of his time, but in 2006 he was banned again, this time for testosterone. In Gatlin's absence, Bolt ascended to the throne. Ran eye-popping World Records in both the 100 and 200 and anchored Jamaica's 4 by 100 relay team to the World Record.

Bolt became the face of track & field, Athletics, worldwide. For the last seven years he's been at the top of his events on the track, but also has been the consummate entertainer. Sports Illustrated writer Tim Layden summed up a typical Bolt championship season as spending the early season flying around the world promoting his sponsors, running some mediocre early season race times, then dominating the big stage, whether that be World Championships or the Olympics. The last two years Bolt has added to the drama because of injuries and less than perfect preparation for the end of season big shows.

Another element that changed during that time was Gatlin. Determined to attempt to take back what had been his, Gatlin slowly demonstrated that he was a legitimate contender to the titles both men wanted. Gatlin had lost what perhaps would have been his prime years as a sprinter. The chance to get closer to the dazzling times Bolt had posted at Olympic and World Championships. In response to those who questioned his PRs this year, Gatlin said that the years he was not competing because of the second doping ban gave his body less stress, more reserves.

He was fresher than he would have been had he been competing during the four years he was on the sidelines. Another take on that time was that he might have run even faster than he has now. He might have run 9.6 or even challenged Bolt's 9.58 World Record in the 100. He would have had Bolt to compete against. The duo might have had epic battles at the 2008 Games and again in 2012. Instead their epic encounter had to wait until this year in Beijing. Instead of being portrayed in the media as the Hollywood good guy vs bad guy match up, it would have been the two best sprinters in the world going mano a mano.

Gatlin would not have had to wear the pejorative "drugs cheat" moniker attached to him in the hype surrounding this year's match up. The pre race stories would not be feeding off the coverage of the multiple doping scandals that dominated the news about Athletics leading up to this year's championships. Instead the talk would be about a mere footrace. Who is the fastest? In an era of sensationalism instead of journalism, however, we have the "white hat" against the "black hat." The hero vs the villain. The champion vs the cheat. Why talk about a mere footrace, when you can have all that tabloid drama?

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