Is Olympic sport half-doped? Or is it half-clean? Perhaps in the end it’s about the kind of person you happen to be. Do you think the Olympic 100m for men is the greatest event in sport? Or is it the biggest sham in sporting history? Whichever answer you give, you’re right.
The greatest single event at the Games is the men’s 100m. Nothing grips our imaginations more ferociously than the quest to be the fastest human being on the planet. The second biggest event – or is it actually the first? – is the dope-testing that follows.
So if you want to understand the meaning of Usain Bolt, you need to understand Ben Johnson. Without Johnson, Bolt is just a great athlete. Johnson made him a figure of colossal and universal significance.
Not that they ever raced each other. Johnson won the 100m at the Olympic Games in Seoul in 1988, in what’s been described as the dirtiest race in history. Of the eight finalists, only two have clean records with regards to performance- enhancing drugs.
It was sport’s primal scene. It took place at noon, to tie in with East Coast primetime in the United States. Carl Lewis of the USA was favourite, but the drug-fuelled Johnson of Canada ran away from the field with the most devastating detonation of human power and speed that the world had ever seen.
I remember it in immense detail: the heat in the stadium, the ferocious light, the red track, the duelling atmosphere, the tension ratcheted so high that something had to break. And the speed of Johnson: so fast it seemed that the human body couldn’t stand the strain of it and Johnson would fly apart at the seams.
Then the last two floating strides, the single finger stabbing the air and the breathless feeling of having watched the impossible. The world record – 9.79 seconds – stared at us in enormous yellow digits.
There was a long wait for Johnson to appear at the press conference, a mass desertion by British journalists wanting their lunch; I bet they’ve all claimed they stayed.
At last Johnson appeared, eyes down, bewildered, muttering disconnectedly into the microphone, looking like a man arrested for indecency. What matters more, Ben – the gold medal or the world record?
“The medal,” he said indistinctly. “It’s something no one can take away from you.”
They took it away a couple of days later. When he failed a drugs test. It wasn’t that no one had cheated before. It wasn’t that no one had taken drugs before. It wasn’t that no drug-taker had ever been caught. But this wasn’t an Eastern European weight-lifter or someone who finished 19th in the steeplechase. This was the winner of the 100m: the fastest man in the world: the world’s fastest cheat. This time it was no local matter. The entire world had been cheated.
Drug cheat: Ben Johnson wins the “dirtiest race in history” – Seoul 1988
Four years later, Linford Christie of Great Britain won the Olympic 100m in Barcelona. He had failed a drugs test in Seoul and was let off; he failed another later in his career. At the Athens Games of 2004 I found an excuse not to cover the race. It was won by Justin Gatlin, who two years later was banned for drugs for the second time, getting an eight-year ban that was reduced to four on appeal. At one stage it was claimed that the drugs had been rubbed into his body by a masseur with a grudge.
That was sprinting when the Games went to Beijing in 2008… and yet treacherously, I found the old fascination returning. Couldn’t keep away. Watched every heat. The event was turning into a three-way shootout, like the climactic scene in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
But who was the Good?
I took to Usain Bolt at first sight. The Jamaican team had been kitted out in sloppy après-beach vests rather than skin-tight superman suits. I loved the way this enormous fellow – he stands 6ft 5in and looks bigger – strolled around the stadium like a man on holiday.
He seemed a little surprised by the bang of the starting pistol, but he got up in his leisurely way – it takes him a while to uncoil – and jogged gamely down the track, courteously allowing the rest of them to almost-but-not-quite catch up. He qualified with a mild smile.
In the semi-final, Bolt actually hurried. Well, for the first 50 metres. But then he eased up and reached the finish in a kind of extended trot and a time of 9.85, making it clear that he would win the gold medal unless he fell over.
He nearly did. He ran the final with his left shoelace untied. And he ran his fastest for – oh, 90 metres and more. After that he was so happy he started dancing: beating his chest and performing a high knee-lift. It was the fastest boogie in history.
And even with the dancing it was a new world record: 9.69 seconds, a full tenth faster than Johnson in Seoul, a new second digit, a time that had once been considered physically impossible: and all this from a man who had been tested and retested and was to be tested and retested again and again – and still has never failed.
Dancing over the finish line
It was in the shattering few seconds after the race that you found out what kind of person you were. Should the journalist’s knee-jerk cynicism cut in? Not a hope. I found myself staggering about in small circles, wide-eyed, repeating Bolt’s finishing-time again and again with the addition of a single gratuitous adjective. For it was as if a great blessing had descended on Beijing and athletics and the Olympic Games and the world: a great golden cloud that dropped the gentle rain of joy; joy mixed with sweet relief; a cloud that sheltered us from the glaring light of Seoul and all the cheats of the past 20 years.
It was like being young again. Remember the reckless admiration you once gave some grown-up twice your size, doing so without fear that anything could ever change your view? Johnson made fools of us all, but Bolt made us innocent again.
Or at least that’s the way it seemed up in the steep-raked seats of the Bird’s Nest stadium.
I wish to this day that I’d been in Berlin for the world champion-ships the following year, when Bolt ran still faster, setting a time of 9.58 seconds that still stands as the world record. But I was there at the London Games four years ago, when it seemed that Bolt’s great est gift was not speed but sense of occasion.
Things had been sticky for him over the previous couple of years: injury, defeats, and then disaster in the 100m final at the world championships in 2011, when he was disqualified for a false start.
In the Olympic final in London the race started and I heard a ghastly groan from a colleague alongside me: “Oh no…” Gatlin the drugs-cheat started brilliantly. Bolt was already struggling at 20 metres… and then the old Bolt afterburner kicked in and he surged away from the rest of them at what seemed like cheetah-catching pace. He was even faster than he was in Beijing, 9.63, and the London Games received its own blessing from Bolt. It was as if God had become a Londoner.
Bolting ahead in 2012
I had no time for staggering about and marvelling this time: in a largely successful attempt to type as fast as Bolt could run, I hit my deadline and went on to the next day of Olympic wonders – knowing that because of Bolt the Games would be remembered as more than an administrative success. They were now clearly established as a global joy.
The London Games needed the blessing of Bolt – a Bolt win, followed by drugs tests that revealed once again his body’s freedom from all the cheating substances in the world. As in Beijing in 2008, he also won the 200m and, with the Jamaican team, the 4x100m relay.
The Olympic Games is about many sports, 28 of them, but track and field remains the heartland – and at the heart of the heartland lies the men’s 100m: the nearest humanity gets to producing a real superhero.
No doubt the Olympic Games would have survived without Bolt, but Bolt remade the simple direct joys that the Games are all about. He did so in Beijing and he did so again in London. He is narrow favourite to win yet again in Rio, with Gatlin second favourite.
Once again, he will take on three events, so he’s going for the triple-triple – in the month he turns 30. And while we could take Bolt’s defeat with resignation, we would greet a failed drugs test with despair.
Bolt gave us our Games back, he gave us our sport back, he freed us up to enjoy the simple pleasures that lie at the heart of sport. I hope he runs fast in Rio. I hope he runs fastest. But above all, I hope he runs clean.