One Small Voice: It hardly seems fair on Usain Bolt

2008-06-13 00:00

Two weeks ago in New York, a tall 21-year-old sprinter from Trelawny, Jamaica, ran the 100 metres in 9,72 seconds, setting a new world record in only his fifth senior run over the distance.

Following his increasingly familiar custom, he continued running after he crossed the finish line, high-stepping around the track and milking the cheers of the crowd as they rose to acclaim the new Fastest Man in the World.

Usain Bolt’s remarkable achievement was instantly hailed as “a great moment in sporting history”, reported by every newspaper, radio station and television channel.

And yet … and yet … the plain fact is that, all around the globe, many people will have learned of his feat and instinctively assumed young Usain is on some pretty good drugs.

Sprinting has fallen into disrepute.

Once considered the most prestigious event in athletics, the 100 metres has become generally derided as no more than a criminal contest between pharmaceutical sharks, a scramble to develop devilish pills and potions that evade detection and make genetically modified Afro-Americans run faster.

Popular perception equals reality, and the unfortunate reality for “The Lightning Bolt” and his fellow athletes is that most observers perceive elite sprinting as inherently dirty and dishonest.

It doesn’t really matter if, in fact, the current stars are all dedicated, wholesome young men striving to make the most of their God-given talents — they are all tainted by the memories and images of scandals past.

It was not always so.

The first 100 m champion of the modern Olympiad, the gold medallist at the 1896 Games in Athens, was Thomas Burke, a lawyer from Boston who fascinated the European crowds by daring to crouch at the start of the race. The closest he came to an illegal substance was two sugars in his tea.

Unblemished, pedigree Olympic 100 m heroes followed in his wake: Charley Paddock (USA) at Antwerp in 1920; Briton Harold Abrahams, immortalised in the film Chariots of Fire, at Paris in 1924; Jesse Owens (USA), the black hero who defied the Nazis and triumphed at Berlin in 1936; Bobby Morrow, a cotton farmer from Texas who extolled the benefits of 11 hours sleep a night, at Melbourne in 1956; Valery Borzov, a blond, blue-eyed Russian, at Munich in 1972; Hasely Crawford of Trinidad at Montreal in 1976; Alan Wells, the Scottish son of a blacksmith and, at the age of 28, the oldest 100 m champion ever, at Moscow in 1980.

By the time Carl Lewis won at Los Angeles in 1984, the doubters were murmuring. When Ben Johnson, the Jamaican running for Canada, won at Seoul in 1988 only to be disqualified three days later when his urine sample tested positive for stanozolol, an anabolic steroid, the magic evaporated.

Linford Christie (GB) won at Barcelona in 1992, but was later suspended after failing a drugs test; Donovan Bailey (Canada) won at Atlanta in 1996; Maurice Greene (USA) won at Sydney in 2000 and Justin Gatlin (USA) at Athens in 2004; yet they all claimed glory under a cloud of suspicion.

It had been assumed the race for 100 m gold at the imminent Olympic Games in Beijing would rest between Asafa Powell of Jamaica and Tyson Gay, reigning 100 m and 200 m world champion, of the USA, but this season’s dramatic emergence of Usain Bolt has turned the duel into a three-way contest.

Maybe the two-metre-tall youngster can win. Maybe he can become the Olympic champion, as well as the world record holder. Maybe he can prove himself demonstrably clean, and publicly denounce drugs. Maybe Bolt can reverse the tide of popular perception and restore the integrity of his sport.

That is a lot of “maybes”, but the signs are encouraging. He played cricket as a youngster and was reared on the ethos of fair play in the gentleman’s game (he remains friends with many of the current West Indies team). He is also a devout Christian and in 2002 joined the Anabaptist faith.

“Whatever happens in Beijing,” he says softly, “after the Olympics, I am going to come home to Jamaica and continue my studies at the University of Technology in Kingston.”

Saviour of the 100 m sprint? Just maybe.

•Edward Griffiths is a journalist, author and former CEO of SA Rugby.

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