BEIJING — Usain Bolt did Sunday night what Usain Bolt does best, winning the men’s 100 meters at the 2015 world track and field championships, crossing just one-hundredth of a second in front of Justin Gatlin.
This was not, for the record, a morality play. This was, simply, an excellent race.
For any and all worried about the future of track and field or who believed that the men’s 100 final at the Bird’s Nest made for a referendum on sport or life itself, be assured — the sun was going to come up Monday morning all over the world, whether Bolt or Gatlin prevailed. All is not right, or wrong, because of one-hundredth of a second.
And now we all have the delicious anticipation of a year-long build-up to the men’s 100 at the Rio 2016 Olympics. Not to mention the 200 here later this week.
This is all to the good for track and field. Indeed, it’s awesome. The race Sunday drew worldwide attention.
As Gatlin's agent, Renaldo Nehemiah, would say late Sunday night, "It’s what our sport sorely needs. A sport needs a rivalry. A photo finish like that is great for the sport.
"It elevates Bolt even more," Nehemiah said, adding with emphasis, "It elevates Gatlin even more."
Even the International Olympic Committee president, Thomas Bach, weighed in, saying after the race, “Congratulation to Usain Bolt for a historic victory. So great to see him winning in the Bird's Nest stadium again."
Gatlin and Bolt ran together down the track until, just a few meters from the end, a few strides out, Gatlin lost his form — a break in the technique that, all along, he had said was his key. Bolt ran hard to the line while Gatlin sought to keep driving and not wipe out.
The American Trayvon Bromell and the Canadian Andre DeGrasse tied for third, at 9.911 — a sign, perhaps, that the next generation has arrived. Both are just 20 years old.
"I definitely think this was my hardest race," Bolt would say later.
Referring to Gatlin, Bolt said, "I could see him stumbling."
He cautioned, "All the stumbling, it could have helped him, momentum-wise. I had to lean at the right time, and I did just that."
Gatlin is now 33. Eleven years ago, at the 2004 Athens Olympics, he won the 100. At the 2005 Helsinki world championships, he won the 100 and 200. The next year, he got tagged with a positive test for testosterone under circumstances still not fully explained.
Gatlin spent four years out of the sport, then started working his way back: bronze in the 100 at the London 2012 Games, silver at the Moscow 2013 worlds, in both instances behind Bolt.
Gatlin — under the tutelage of Dennis Mitchell, himself a former champion sprinter — had not lost in 2014 or 2015.
Bolt, meantime, spent most of 2014 injured — he would run one 400 — and had run a limited number of times in 2015, posting a 9.87 earlier this year in London.
The experts thought it would be Gatlin all the way.
Indeed, Paddy Power, the online bookmaker, had installed Gatlin before Sunday’s semifinals and finals as a 5/6 favorite for victory, with Bolt at 11/10. Shortly before the finals themselves, the odds changed: Gatlin 4/9, Bolt 2/1.
Ato Boldon, himself a former champion sprinter who is now an accomplished broadcaster, had declared Saturday on his Facebook page, “Semi finals for tomorrow. Final will shock everyone (except those with two eyes, who use them),” elaborating for the New York Times, “Gatlin is so head and shoulders above anyone else in this field in terms of execution, fitness and readiness that I find it almost comical that it’s being billed as a big showdown. Gatlin is going to put on a clinic, and everyone who makes that 100 final is invited.”
Bolt ultimately put on the clinic — and yet in far too many quarters of the English-speaking press, particularly the British media, the race was depicted as a straightforward contest of “good” and “evil,” the caricature rendering Gatlin as “evil” and Bolt, who has never tested positive, as “good.”
This tweet, for example, from the track and field writer for the Daily Mail:
Men's 100m semi-finals start in 30mins with five drugs cheats among runners. How many before you turn off your TV? http://t.co/aYTDCjF0Qt
— Martha Kelner (@marthakelner) August 23, 2015
Nobody was turning off their sets. Just the opposite. For those who might prefer a more sober approach, here was the BBC:
“… The public wants sport to be entertainment and to provide simple lessons in morality. It wants great stories, and the greatest possible story has an alternative narrative to that proposed by Gatlin and Bolt.
“The public wants Gatlin to be the bad guy and Bolt to be the good guy. That's why hundreds of millions around the world will be watching Sunday's final in Beijing — to see the bad guy get beat.”
For one, Gatlin is not a bad guy. He is a good guy. For real — great with kids and with fans of the sport, with a mission to make track and field as interesting to Americans, in particular, as an NFL game. Gatlin cares deeply about track and field, about his country and about his family.
Moments after the race, Gatlin sought out his mother, Jeannette. Asked what he told her, he replied:
"I didn’t say anything to my mother. Win or lose, that was my plan, to go embrace her. For the simple fact that my mother and my father," Willie, a Vietnam vet, "have been through my ups and downs with me. For them, it has been a journey. It has been a journey for me. I’m so happy they can be at every championship I have been at. I love them. I love them."
For another, the 100 is a footrace, not a marker for world peace.
Larry Eder, editor of the website RunBlogRun, which covers road running and track and field, had written, “I have to admit, I get really tired of the good versus evil and the big bad doper stories. It takes less much more work to write about the the pile of horse manure piled on the sport in recent times, than it does to write about one, how to change it, and two, what is actually going on in Beijing.”
Also Sunday, 13 months after giving birth to a son, Reggie, Britain’s Jessica Ennis-Hill won gold in the heptathlon; Joe Kovacs won the men’s shot put with a fifth-round throw of 21.93 meters, 71 feet 11-1/2 inches, the first American to win at the worlds in six years and Team USA’s first gold here in Beijing; the rounds of the men’s 400 were super-crazy fast, with 18 guys running under 45 seconds, two under 44; and the American Tori Bowie going 10.88 in the first round of the women’s 100, the fastest first-round time ever in the history of the world championships.
As the BBC noted in even the same piece, the “very idea of Gatlin as some harbinger of death for the sport of athletics is darkly absurd and comical in itself, given that generations of drug cheats have been doing their best to kill the sport for half a century.”
Nonetheless, at the post-race news conference, a reporter asserted that "a few of the other athletes in the race" said it was "important" that Bolt win. What did Gatlin think about that?
He replied, "I'm thankful."
"Anything more? Can you be more specific?"
"Specifically, I'm thankful."
"Is that what you have to say? It's an important issue for me, at least."
"Very important? Then I'm thankful."
Next question, from a different reporter: "Rightly or wrongly, do you think the IAAF are grateful you didn't [win]?"
Nehemiah had said just minutes before, referring to the anti-Gatlin venom infecting so many in the media, "It's unfair. I feel badly for him because I know him personally. As much as I say to him, 'Let your running be your refuge,' he’s human. It’s sad we are reading the lowest common denominator."
He added a moment later, "At some point we need to rise above that. Because he himself doesn’t deserve that."
For those intrigued by numerology, Bolt's 9.79 matched exactly the 9.79 that Ben Johnson, of mega-doping fame, ran in Seoul in 1988. Make of that what you will, if anything.
Back in the real world, the unrelenting emphasis from the Daily Mail and others:
Four of Saturday’s seven prelims were won by athletes with doping records: Gatlin, who in addition to his 2006 difficulties also tested positive in 2001 for trace amounts of amphetamine owing to the use of Adderall, his prescription medicine for ADD; the American Tyson Gay, a one-year suspension for steroid use; Femi Ogunode, the Nigerian-born runner who runs for Qatar, two years for a stimulant; and Jamaica’s Asafa Powell, six months for a stimulant.
Another American, Mike Rodgers, also qualified into Sunday’s semifinal; he got nine months off for a stimulant.
All but Ogunode would make it through to Sunday’s final.
In the first of Sunday night’s three semifinals, Bolt almost tripped coming out of the blocks — it looked like his bright yellow shoes with the green stripe on the side were maybe a stitch too long in front — and had to dig to win the heat, which he did in 9.96. DeGrasse, the Pan Am Games and NCAA champ, also crossed in 9.96.
Bromell finished third, in 9.99. Bingtan Su, fourth, became the first Chinese ever to go sub-10, also timed in 9.99.
"As an athlete, you can ask any athlete, any top athlete, if you start doubting yourself, you have already lost the race," Bolt said when asked if the semifinal stumble weighed on him going into the final, adding, "I never doubt myself."
All Gatlin did in the next semifinal was rip off the fastest worlds non-final time ever, 9.77. And he was taking it easy at the end, slowing with 10 meters to go.
Rodgers flashed across second, in a season-best 9.86.
Ogunode took third, in 10-flat.
In the third semi, it was Gay in 9.96, Powell in 9.97.
Thus, into the final, all four Americans: Gatlin, Gay, Rodgers, Bromell.
In the final, Gatlin drew Lane 5, Bolt 7, Gay between them in 6.
Mugging for the cameras before the start, Bolt smiled and made the kind of motion with his hands you might make on Halloween, as if to say, who’s scared?
Gatlin blew two kisses, then — as he had in the prelims and semis — made a show of strength with both fists.
Bolt, since his false start in the 100 at the 2011 Daegu worlds, has been a cautious starter. On Sunday, though, he was out of the blocks in 0.159 seconds; Gatlin, in 0.165.
Gatlin drew ahead, and stayed ahead, until about 80 meters. Then it got tight.
And then Gatlin gave the race away. As he said in a news conference, aiming for the line, he was "trying to get my momentum forward." He got too forward, and lost control.
It made for Gatlin’s first loss since Sept. 6, 2013.
Asked if he believed Gatlin pressed, knowing that Bolt was right there, Nehemiah said, "Extremely. Lost concentration."
He also said, meaning the race itself, "I still think it was epic for the fans."
Bolt, meanwhile, has to be given enormous credit for his performance come championship time — and his ability to keep on being the best in the world over a sustained period. He is now the 100 champion at the 2008 (and 2012) Olympics, and at the 2009, 2013 and 2015 worlds.
He also just turned 29 — two days ago.
And still the king. After the race, camera crews urged him into his “To Di World” pose.
Asked about the difference between 2009, when he ran a world-record 9.58, and now, Bolt said, "I’m the same person. I’m just getting older. It’s about trying to get everything together throughout the season. It’s hard."
And it's going to keep getting harder.
Nehemiah, once more, referring to next year in Rio: "We could still have the ending we want. If [Gatlin] wins that, people will forget about Beijing."