AT THIS stage of the athletics season, with under a month to go before the IAAF World Championships, the talk is often about who will cross the finishing line first in the men’s 100 metres.
Right now, since the weekend’s news that two of the biggest names in the event have tested positive for banned substances, it’s about who will make it to the starting line.
Tyson Gay, the fastest man in the world this year, pulled out on Sunday after announcing he had tested positive for a banned substance through “a type of accident”. Asafa Powell followed, when he was revealed as one of five Jamaicans to have failed a drug test at their national championships.
Gay has the three fastest times in the world this year, Powell the fifth. Their withdrawal robs what has become track-and-field’s blue-riband event of two of its biggest names. Usain Bolt, the biggest name of all, of course, will still compete. And, while he is currently just ninth equal on the list of the fastest times this year, the great Jamaican is sure to be the favourite when he lines up in Moscow.
But while Bolt’s outrageous talent and ebullient personality were always going to ensure he was a major star, there is another factor that makes his performances particularly breathtaking. That factor is his ability to make his closest rivals look mundane: to take on some of the fastest humans who have ever lived – men such as his Jamaican team-mate Powell and American opponent Gay – and expose them as pedestrian by comparison.
If Bolt ran against you or me he would still be impressive. But a victory in those circumstances would be nowhere near as impressive as it would be against the likes of Gay and Powell – even if it were run in the same time.
The two newly-banned men have been a special kind of supporting cast for Bolt: fabulously gifted athletes in their own right against whom his own greatness can be most accurately measured. Without them, interest in the 100m is sure to dip – and scepticism sure to strengthen about the rest.
In the case of Justin Gatlin, who has three of the ten fastest times this year, it’s something more than scepticism. The New Yorker, who won gold at the Athens Olympics, subsequently served a four-year ban after testing positive for testosterone or its precursor. He has been back for four years now without testing positive again, but in many people’s eyes his very presence devalues an event.
For Scottish hurdler Eilidh Child, the answer to that credibility problem is lifetime bans. “It’s got to be a lifetime ban,” she said yesterday. “There does need to be that deterrent, to put anyone on the verge of thinking about it completely off.
“A couple of years [as a ban] isn’t that much and is enough to get back into another games. For me, that can be a bad injury for some athletes who can be out for a couple of years and come back after that. So it does really need to be a lifetime ban so that people who think about it are completely put off because they know that they’re not going to get back into their sport after it.” Athletes tend to be optimistic by nature, and Child reflected the thoughts of many when she suggested that positive tests had a good side to them – they meant the sport was one step nearer to being clean.
“I think the initial reaction from everybody was shock and upset,” she continued. “But you’ve got to look at the positive side and say that hopefully this is going to be a step in the right direction to making our sport clean. Our sport gets a bit of a bad name because of the amount of cheats that have come out, so we’re hoping the deterrents are working, the system is working, and people are getting caught and it’s going to be better in the long run. Hopefully, in the next couple of years, athletics can be seen as a clean sport and a level playing field.”
British 800m Jemma Simpson made a similar wish yesterday when she tweeted: “Many reporters consider the latest drug implications [to] be detrimental [to] the sport. We may see the cleanest 100m final in history.”
That certainly could be good news for James Dasaolu, who clocked the second-fastest time yet by a Briton in the semi-finals of the Sainsbury’s British Championships on Saturday. That run of 9.91 put him into the year’s top ten, and the exclusion of Gay and Powell means that only Nesta Carter of the possible world finalists has a faster time.
But the problem is we may not know if we are seeing the cleanest race ever. We might not be sure for several years. And, rightly or wrongly, there is a widely held opinion that each positive test is not a step towards purity, but is further damning evidence that track and field is inescapably corrupt.