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.
Whistle-blower Vitaly Stepanov, a former worker at Russia’s anti-doping agency whose wife competed in the corrupted Russian system, estimated 80 percent of coaches used doping to prepare their athletes for the London Games four years ago.
“They prefer to hide everything,” Stepanov said of Russia’s modus operandi. “They say the problem was a lot smaller than it actually was.”
Last week, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) rebuffed Stepanov’s wife, Yulia Stepanova, the 800m runner who exposed Russia’s doping culture after being cast out by the track program. She was seeking to compete at the Olympics, and had the blessing of the IAAF and World Anti-Doping Agency, but the IOC said no.
It was par for the course. Efforts to sanction Russia have been tinged with confusion, indecisiveness and politics.
The long-term repercussions could range from an eventual cleanup of the country’s track program to a “schism” within the Olympic movement, as Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested as part of the heated rhetoric that punctuated the doping ban decisions.
He called the case against Russia “a well-planned campaign which targeted our athletes, which included double standards and the concept of collective punishment, which has nothing to do with justice or even basic legal norms.”
Russia’s world record pole vaulter, Yelena Isinbayeva, is among those staying home.
She said the remaining track and field athletes would be competing only for “pseudo-gold” medals without the Russians running in Rio.
That is not so much Bolt’s concern.
Over the past four years, only one man, the US’ Justin Gatlin — the 2004 100m gold medalist who has served two doping bans — has been able to seriously challenge Bolt at either 100m or 200m.
However, more than racing against Gatlin, Bolt is racing against the clock — and into history.
And yet, the doping scourge does not elude him, either. His relay medal from 2008 is in jeopardy now, thanks to retests conducted by the IOC that indicated teammate Nesta Carter could have used a banned substance.
In the past, the IOC has stripped entire relay teams of medals, even when only one person dopes.
At almost every stop he makes, Bolt is asked about doping.
In an interview before his tune-up race in London last month, he showed off the band-aid covering the mark where testers had drawn their latest tube full of blood.
“Rules are rules and doping violations in track and field is getting really bad, so if you feel like you need to make a statement, then thumbs up,” Bolt said of the Russian ban.
He has never tested positive, has mostly managed to smile through the thinly veiled questions about his own doping virtue, and, when the stakes are greatest, has rarely failed to put on a show people want to watch.
The next act starts with 100m qualifying on Aug. 13.
Bolt, who turns 30 on the day of the closing ceremony in Rio, has said he would hang up the spikes after an encore season next year, but more recently has left the door slightly cracked for racing beyond that.
When he does leave, his sport will start the search for a new face — a new distraction, perhaps, from the problems that come at this sport from almost every angle.
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