Usain Bolt still man for a golden run
Good guy wins as champion leaves Gatlin stumbling
This was the great escape: for Usain Bolt and for athletics - and with it the sport breathed a collective sigh of relief.
Bolt described this 100 metres final as the hardest race of his life. Having looked fallible all season long, the world’s fastest man looked anything but when it mattered most, despite not reaching top gear.
Bolt’s ninth world title has not fixed the ills of a sport perpetually under fire in recent weeks with the scourge of doping, but the man billed as its saviour helped avoid the headlines its governing body, the IAAF, so desperately wanted to avoid.
Its newly elected president, Seb Coe, had said a win for the American Justin Gatlin would have made him “queasy” but that scenario looked on the cards on the evidence of the previous rounds.
But Gatlin, who had gone unbeaten in 29 races over 100m and 200m since September 2013, crumbled, stumbling over the final five metres to effectively give Jamaican Bolt the victory.
It was theatre at its finest. Bolt had stumbled in his semi-final, completely losing his footing as he emerged from the blocks. A virtually full house in the Bird’s Nest Stadium gasped collectively, but Bolt clawed his way back to qualify for the final.
In contrast, Gatlin was technically superb — as he has been all year — in running a semi-final time of 9.77sec to mark himself out as the favourite.
But come the final, his consistency fell apart, the American diving for the line too early and recording one of his slowest times this season, 9.80sec, just a hundredth of a second behind Bolt.
So, by the narrowest of margins, athletics had avoided a two-time convicted drug cheat being crowned champion of the world.
Gatlin has a chance to bounce back in the 200m, but this was his best chance as Bolt’s often sluggish start is more easily covered up over the longer distance.
Once more, the 29-year-old Jamaican reiterated his quest to be “the best athlete ever”, surely a status already achieved with his global success dating back to this arena in 2008. This time, it was a different, newly laid track, but with the same winner, with Trayvon Bromell and Andre de Grasse sharing the bronze.
Bolt was more subdued than usual, partly, he said, from getting older, which has meant more ice baths and earlier nights. His time was slower than his global audience has grown accustomed to, particularly when predictions from within the Jamaican camp were that he could record a low 9.6sec if all went to plan.
The problem, as ever, has been his start, which very nearly curtailed him in his semi-final. Unable quite to explain what had gone wrong, he said: “I really don’t know. I stumbled, but I knew I was better than everyone in the field, so I had to compose myself and run my race.”
He snuck through, talked to his coach Glen Mills, who advised him to stay relaxed and told him: “You’re thinking about the race too much and trying to get a perfect race.” He also claimed it was a result never in doubt — but nothing could have been further from the truth.
All season, Bolt has been well below his best. He only began to show any real pace at the Anniversary Games in London and two runs of 9.87sec looked unlikely to upset Gatlin.
A pelvic problem, which meant he was struggling to be as explosive out of the blocks as usual, was treated by Dr Hans-Wilhelm Müller-Wohlfart, the German doctor nicknamed ‘Magic Hans’ and someone Bolt called “a lifesaver” after his latest victory. He loosened some locked-up joints and got Bolt to change his footwear and his stretches.
Whatever the treatment, it had the required effect. This was not vintage Bolt by any means, but it didn’t need to be and his potential fallibility simply added to the occasion.
His name was chanted before the start, while the large Jamaican contingent sang Bob Marley’s One Love to their countryman.
Despite the hiccup of the previous round, he was as relaxed as ever and played his usual role, pretending to shave his newly grown beard in lane five.
With Gatlin two lanes outside him, it became clear Bolt was in his head from past championships. Once more, Gatlin started well, but Bolt began to claw him back and by 80m they were level. It spurred on Bolt and the first real challenge of his season appeared to perturb Gatlin, whose previous technical perfection fell apart for the first time and, with it, his shot at the gold was gone.
“I gave it away,” said the American. “I stumbled in the last five metres.
“You have to come out and run and, over the last five metres, it wasn’t my day to do so. I leaned a little too far forward and I got a little off balance.”
Of his opponent, Gatlin added: “He’s a gamer, he’s a showman. Anyone who goes to the line to go against him has to be ready to go to work. In those five metres, I let things get away from me. I stumbled a little and it cost me the race.”
While Gatlin was disappointed with the overall result, few others were. This was the required shot in the arm for the sport.