DAEGU, South Korea — Usain Bolt false-started, and Yohan Blake, his Jamaican training partner, won the men’s 100-meter world championship title in a race that immediately created a sensational controversy sure to linger to and through the London 2012 Olympic Games.
Whether that controversy is good for track and field, a sport that desperately needs stars and on Sunday by rule excused its biggest star from its biggest event — all that remains to be seen.
“Looking for tears?” Bolt said as he was leaving the stadium. “Not gonna happen. I’m OK.”
Blake flew to an easy win in 9.92 seconds just after Bolt false-started. Under a rule that was passed in 2009 and that went into effect in 2010, a regulation that some track and field insiders had warned would inevitably produce a result just like this, one false start now leads to immediate disqualification.
Inevitably came Sunday night in Daegu.
Bolt false-started. He knew it immediately. His face turned into a scream. He ripped his shirt off as a roar of disbelief echoed around the stadium.
He threw his arms up in apparent disgust. His hands over his head, he was led backstage. There he slammed the blue stadium wall.
Justin Gatlin, the American sprinter, had suggested beforehand that the 100 final would be “epic.” Turned out he was right — but what a crazy context.
The show must go on. And, after the shirtless Bolt was led off, it did. But no one in the world thinks Yohan Blake is the world’s best sprinter.
Against the six other guys he raced, yes, Yohan Blake was by far the best.
Would he have beaten Usain Bolt?
What, when all is said and done, is the point of a world championships race?
What, when all is said and done, is the point of a rule?
American Walter Dix took second, in 10.08. The first third of the race was the worst, Dix said: “… I kept sitting in the blocks and I couldn’t move. That false start was killing us. And hopefully it will change by London. I really didn’t think they would kick him out … they have him on every poster.”
Kim Collins of St. Kitts and Nevis, the 2003 100 world champion, took third here Sunday, in 10.09. He, too, said the rule ought to be changed: “Not because of [Bolt] but because of what it’s doing to the sport.”
Then again, it’s precisely because of what it was doing to the sport that the rule was changed to one-and-done.
From 2001, track and field worked under a two-strike principle. The first false-start in a particular race was charged to the field. Only if there was a second false-start would that particular athlete be disqualified.
The practical consequence of the two-strike rule was a lot of twitchy gamesmanship.
In 2009, the IAAF, track and field’s governing body, had seen enough. It ordered the one-and-done, effective January 2010.
Swimming works on a one-and-done — and, it must be said, swimmers stay on the blocks.
In the first two days of the 2011 track worlds, though, there have already been three extraordinary false-start disqualifications.
Christine Ohuruogu, the 2007 world champion and 2008 Olympic gold medalist in the 400, was disqualified in Saturday’s 400 heats. She sat on the stairs leading to an interview zone for 20 minutes, then said, “I’m broken. You can all see I’m broken. I have nothing else to say. I false-started. I have worked really hard. I came here. I false-started.”
Earlier Sunday night, in the semifinals of the men’s 100, Dwain Chambers, the world indoor sprint champion, was eliminated when he false-started.
And, now, Bolt.
It must also be said that IAAF officials are appropriately even-handed in their application of the rule. If it can take out Bolt, it can take out anyone.
Now the question: is that a good thing?
Three years ago, at the Olympic Games in Beijing, Bolt ran 9.69, a world record, in the 100.
Two years ago, at the worlds in Berlin, he ran 9.58, a world record staggering in its achievement.
This year, he has been running slower. No one expected a world record. Pretty much everyone, however, expected victory.
Even Bolt, who before the race went through his by-now familiar showman’s shtick. He pretended to fly down the lanes like an airplane. He smoothed his hair and scraggly beard to make himself look good for the cameras. When he was introduced, he pointed left and right and shook his head no, as if to say, no way those guys are gonna win, then pointed down the track to suggest it was all him.
He settled into the blocks, crossed himself like he usually does. At that point, Usain Bolt is all business.
This time, though, he jumped the gun.
The biggest event in track and field is the men’s 100, and the biggest star is Usain Bolt, and, as Kim Collins said, “The people want to see him — they want to see him do it,” meaning run like he does, and set those records when he can, “and do it again.”
One-and-done not only can but, it is surely proven, will take out even Usain Bolt for a twitch. What now, if anything, should track and field do about that?