Seven years ago, Usain Bolt walked into a theatre of dreams called the Bird’s Nest to lay down the rules in the sprinting zone. Three races, three world records and three shining gold medals in an exhilarating period for athletics marked his ascendancy into the throne reserved for the very best.
The giant from Jamaica has been the undisputed king of track and field since then but when the sport finally returns to the stadium that celebrated his successes at the Olympic Games in 2008, Bolt finds himself in tricky territory.
No other athlete has done more in recent times to keep alive the spirit of freedom that running generates. No other runner has captured the world’s attention like the rangy Jamaican. In turbulent times, he has been the anchor of immeasurable strength. But on the eve of the 15th World Championships in athletics, he has been called upon to do more – to breathe fresh life into that spirit and to once again rise above the dirt that his sport finds itself in.
Close to 2000 athletes from a record 207 countries are expected to compete in Beijing’s iconic landmark at these championships. For an athletics fan, there is plenty to choose from – Kirani James quest for another 400 gold, David Rudisha versus Nijel Amos in the 800M, Pedro Pablo Pichardo fighting Christian Taylor in triple jump and Genzebe Dibaba’s search for her first outdoor gold medal offer just the tip of the talent pool. But for a world caught in a web of doubt, the eyes are out for Bolt first and foremost.
The doping skeletons that have kept tumbling out of the closet have ensured this World Championship arrives with a gloomy backdrop, in contrast to the celebration of talent they normally are. Even a change at the very top in the administrative setup hasn’t lifted the mood. No wonder then that the fans expect Bolt to rise and shine, defeat Justin Gatlin in the sprints and save his sport from doom.
“It’s sad. People are saying I need to win for the sport but I can’t do it by myself,” Bolt said on Thursday, surveying the bleak scenario. “It’s a responsibility of all the athletes to take it upon themselves to save the sport and go forward without drug cheats.”
On his part, all Bolt can do is go out and win his races -- win in a fashion that he is renowned for. Having celebrated his 29th birthday on Friday, Bolt’s body is not what it used to be when he tore up the record sheets with searing runs in 2008 and 2009. That was apparent when a pelvis issue prevented him from going full tilt this season, allowing him to run just three 100M races and three more in 200.
His best of 9.87 seconds in the 100M puts him only in sixth spot in this year’s world’s lists while his 20.13 seconds in the 200 is only the 19th best performance. In contrast, the American Gatlin, portrayed as the villain thanks to his record as a drugs cheat, has four of the fastest timings, topped off with that 9.74 he ran in Doha back in May. And in the 200, Gatlin’s career-best 19.57 standard this season puts him fifth in the all-time list.
At a time when the sport is facing its biggest crisis, a Gatlin win, pundits fear, will send a wrong message, especially with the sprint zone tainted with the likes of Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell, both back from dope suspensions. There was even a suggestion that Bolt should pull out if he is not physically ready for the challenge from Gatlin, unbeaten in 26 races. But the Jamaican has proclaimed himself fit and raring to go, describing himself as a “different, much improved Usain” from his younger days.
In his seven-year reign, Bolt has proved time and again that he is a championship performer, turning it on when the big occasion arrives to nail a staggering eight World Championship gold medals and six Olympic titles. Given the context of this championship, Sunday will present the biggest occasion in recent times. A win for Bolt in the 100M will set the mood for the rest of the Beijing nights. Anything else will be in line with what is happening in and around track and field.
Finals on day one (timings in IST): Men’s marathon (05.05 am); Women’s shot put (5.35 pm); Men’s 10000M (6.20 pm).