Mon, Aug 01, 2016 - Page 12 News List

RIO DE JANEIRO OLYMPICS: Bolt brings light to troubled athletics

FALSE COMPETITION:Pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva said the absence of Russia would leave athletes from other countries competing for ‘pseudo-gold’ medals

AP

Since he coasted to the 100m finish line in world-record time at the Bird’s Nest eight years ago, Usain Bolt has been the smiling face of track and field. He has served as the anchorman of the Olympics — virtually the only reason any casual fan would pay attention to a sport that has orchestrated its own slow, sad, drug-infused downfall.

His tender hamstring improving, Bolt is to return for a final go-round at Olympic glory when track starts in Rio de Janeiro on Aug. 12.

If, as expected, he wins all three sprint events — the 100m, 200m and 4x100m relay — he will only add to his legacy and cement himself at the fore of any conversation about greatest Olympian ever. He is already the first person to win back-to-back Olympic gold at 100m and 200m.

Whether viewed over the six days he runs in Rio, or over the eight years he has graced the world with his once-in-a-lifetime mix of speed, smiles and showmanship, the world’s fastest man has offered track a reprieve from the wasteland of corrupt countries, reshuffled medals and win-at-any-cost malfeasance it has become.

Russians are to be absent from this year’s Olympic track meet — banned by the sport’s governing body, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), which contributed to the problems as much as solved them over the years.

Even with those 67 athletes out of the mix, the 10-day meet is bound to be filled with suspicious glances among the 2,000-plus runners, throwers and jumpers who are to be present — all wondering if they will get a fair shot in a sport that once defined the Olympics, but is hurting because its leaders have proven themselves either unwilling or unable to stop all the cheating.

“It breaks my heart,” said John Carlos, a 1968 bronze medalist whose glove-fisted black power salute in Mexico City created one of the Games’ seminal moments. “It’s a hurting thing to see your peers, their names being erased out of the record books, because individuals ran faster times that might be enhanced by substances. And the powers that be might turn their heads, because they had people coming through the turnstiles with fists full of dollars.”

Money is always a good place to start when seeking the seeds of the destruction of almost any enterprise.

However, the Olympics have also long been a place for countries and political movements to make bold statements.

During the Cold War, the motivation was obvious: winners and losers at 100m certainly did not decide the arms race, but the Olympic medal count was the sort of scoreboard-driven result either side could use to claim superiority in the increasingly bleak standoff between East and West.

“I remember going over to the Olympics thinking, as a 20-year-old, that it’s the most idealistic of institutions,” said Tom McMillian, a member of the 1972 US basketball team that lost the gold-medal game to the USSR after officials gave the Soviets three chances to inbound the ball with three seconds left. “Then, you wake up the next morning thinking: ‘This is a flawed institution.’”

The Soviet Union is history, but what is currently happening in Russia has been described, time and again, as 1970s and 1980s, Eastern Bloc-style cheating.

Two independent investigations — one into the Russian track team, the other into the country’s entire sports system — have shown a pattern of top-to-bottom corruption, involving government officials, anti-doping lab workers, Olympic committee members, coaches and, ultimately, athletes who can profit wildly from going along with the program.

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