Usain Bolt is back in old London town and that is usually good reason to be cheerful, not fearful.
Today, the fastest man on God’s earth will breeze into a hotel next to Tower Bridge and tell us all that he’s cool, that everything’s cool and that, hey don’t worry, the real Usain will be back in business at the Olympic Stadium on Friday night.
Except that some of us do worry about Usain. We worry that, at the moment when his sport needs him most, a sport hamstrung by cynicism and scepticism and populated by a cast list people do not believe in, Bolt may have mislaid his red cape.
Nagging, niggling injuries have made the last two seasons by far his poorest since Bolt’s extra-terrestrial sprint into uncharted territories of human endeavour back in 2008. After all those subsequent years when you could have sworn his only injury would be strained shoulders from having to carry a beleaguered sport, it is a pelvic problem which has begun to make Bolt look, well, just a bit mundane.
Bolt himself feels that any suggestion that he may not be the athlete he was is “disrespectful”, and maybe he has a point. Unbeaten in 14 races stretching back two years and undefeated in any global championship 100m or 200m final (apart from his false start in the Daegu world championships 100m in 2011) for seven years, he can justifiably demand of his doubters ‘Show me the decline’.
After all, when it really matters, hasn’t Bolt always been ready? In 2012, he did not even look Jamaica’s best during the Olympics build-up, only to destroy training partner Yohan Blake et al at the Games.
We almost take his greatness for granted. Can we still? Things just feel strangely different now. It is not just that Bolt has not produced a single performance worthy of his genius for two seasons, nor that he reckoned his last outing, a 20.29sec 200m in New York, included the “worst turn” of his career.
No, it is also that in a campaign when Bolt has only been able to clock only 10.12sec for 100m and 20.13sec for 200m, Justin Gatlin has run four sub-9.8sec 100s and recorded the fastest 200m seen anywhere in the last three years (19.57sec).
Yes, all the Bolt-like magic is now coming from a demonised American who has served two drugs bans and is only getting faster at 33. Basically, it is track and field’s nightmare scenario unfolding; its clean and bright hero struggling just at the moment when the sport’s arch villain, the bloke who supposedly once spat into Bolt’s lane before a race to try to put him off, is soaring.
What Gatlin is doing is giving international athletics chiefs nightmares. Privately, some admit his rise and rise feels like an insoluble problem. Come next summer, Bolt’s Olympic 100m title, their sport’s grandest prize, could be held by a man who, while actually very personable and quite agreeable when you meet him, cannot outsprint his widespread portrayal as an unrepentant, serial cheat. How the hell do you sell a sport like that? Then there’s the matter of who might stop Gatlin? What, Tyson Gay, the American champion who says he should not be described as a drugs cheat even though he too has served a ban after testing positive for a banned anabolic steroid? Or his world championship- bound teammate Mike Rodgers? Or Jamaican champ Asafa Powell? Both of them have failed drugs tests too.
No wonder the IAAF turns its lonely eyes to Bolt again. Tomorrow, in the 2012 stadium which Seb Coe’s dream built and which Usain’s greatness decorated, the IAAF presidency candidate Coe, will be desperately hoping to see signs that the Jamaican is ready to return to his best in London’s Diamond League meeting, the Sainsbury’s Anniversary Games. It was Coe, after all, who made it clear last year that he had “big problems” with Gatlin being short-listed for athlete of the year.
So, if the weather is not unkind, Bolt needs to run in the region of 9.80sec to demonstrate that, just as in 2013 when he recorded 9.85sec there before going on to do the double in Moscow, he really is in shape to successfully defend his 100m and 200m crowns at the world championships in Beijing next month. Fine opposition, headed by Rodgers and France’s new European record holder Jimmy Vicaut (9.86ec), needs to be despatched with all his old track-devouring panache.
Anything less than this will make Gatlin the warmest favourite in Beijing. Indeed, if Bolt feels he still is not doing himself justice, then could we see him pull out of the world championships altogether and concentrate on being prepared for Rio? Somehow, this would not surprise. It was noticeable in an interview with Trinidadian sprinter Ato Boldon on the IAAF website this week that the subject of the world championships seemed to be completely ignored while Bolt talked instead of his ambition of an Olympic ‘three-peat’ in Rio.
The chat was classically Bolt-lite. Usain talking about his love of Beyonce; Usain revealing how meeting President Obama made him feel starstruck; Usain chatting about his Tour of Duty gaming obsession. Yet when he started reflecting about his age and his injuries, it forced you to recall how this man has been hammering around tracks at the top level now for 13 years since he emerged as the ultimate 15-year-old ‘fenom’.
“When I really realised I was getting older was last season when I got injured,” he told Boldon. “Trying to get back was much harder than the years when I was younger. Now it takes time for me to get going and I need a lot more races.
“I’ve noticed that I have to be very careful. I’ve cut back on a lot of things and I’ve started eating healthy. That’s the hardest thing for me right now, the sacrifices, eating vegetables all the time!” He gave a guffaw but behind it, you could see just the tiniest hint of weariness. Those days when he could surf on a diet of chicken nuggets and outrageous talent? Ancient history. Nothing can be that simple any more.
Of course, it could be foolhardy to suggest Bolt, who’s still just 28 and can peak for championships like few in athletics history ever have, will never again challenge his 100m landmark of 9.58sec and 200m record of 19.19sec. It’s not that he’s grown old overnight; it’s just that Gatlin seems to be shedding years, back to his Olympian heights of 2004 and convinced he cannot only dethrone the Jamaican but also take his records.
“What is it really going to amount to if I go out there and run against Usain when he is not at his best?” shrugged Gatlin recently. “That is not a great storyline. It is not a race I would like to go out and win. I want Usain at his best, and I think he wants me at my best. That’s what people want to see.”
Yes, they do. Because at their best, Bolt wins and Gatlin loses. And an entire sport breathes a sigh of relief. Now that is a great storyline.
Ian Chadband is an award winning journalist and former Sports Feature Writer of the Year
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