Caught NBC’s Sunday broadcast of the 100-meter final from the World Track and Field Championships in Beijing. What a rush.
Usain Bolt won the race, the way you always expect him to, in 9.79 seconds. The more fascinating number to me is the Jamaican’s age, 29. Crazier yet is the age of runnerup Jason Gatlin, who is 33 and missed out on a dead heat tie by one-hundredth of a second.
Only a robotic eye could capture a sliver of time so infinitesimal and deliver it as unblinking fact, but it’s a wonder of the human body that we’re talking about this at all.
How does anyone take the astonishing speed of the world’s fastest human and wrap it into a training regimen so tight that the lightning maintains its pop for years and years?
This is the kind of event that should be won by men much younger, and younger, and younger, rather than being dominated by one athlete over a long period of time. Every shot out of the blocks is a hamstring pull waiting to happen. Every meet puts the champion on notice that one misspent second could shatter his reputation, and his career.
I’ll never forget standing near the finish line at the 1988 Seoul Olympics when Carl Lewis and Ben Johnson came barreling down the track. That moment felt like the ultimate payoff on the decision to become a sportswriter because there’s no doubt that millions of people around the globe would have traded almost anything to be in my place.
Then, in a flash, it was over. Johnson, 26, was announced as the winner in 9.79 seconds, the same time that Bolt posted the other day. Lewis, 27, came in second, a bitter disappointment that he covered by saying he had done the best he could do on the big stage and could live with that.
Scrambling down a ladder from field level and then sprinting down a hallway to file a deadline column, I had no idea that the story was changing still and faster than anyone knew. Three days later it was announced that a post-race drug test showed an anabolic steroid called Stanozolol in Johnson’s system. By the time the international press learned about it, Big Ben was on his way home to Canada, his gold medal handed to Lewis, his Olympic victory erased.
Turns out the cheetah was a cheater.
Now it’s Gatlin, gold medalist from the 2004 Olympics in Athens, who is being portrayed by some as the villain in some new track drama. He served his own suspension for steroid use, beginning in 2006, and is not an adored showman like Bolt.
What’s fascinating, though, is the way Gatlin has moved past the shame and pushed his world-class skills to the limit once more. At the 2012 London Olympics he won a bronze medal in the 100. In 2016 at the Rio de Janeiro Games he expects to medal again, but this time Gatlin wants gold.
He’ll be 34 years and six months old when that opportunity comes, and scrutinized more closely than ever by race officials and fans and, most of all, his rivals. Just imagine, a runner contemplating the possibility of Olympic medals won 12 years apart in the fastest race of them all.
The guy’s got guts, and it bothered me to hear television and radio analysts deriding him the other day for blowing the Beijing race by .01 seconds.
Here’s hoping Gatlin makes it to Rio still at top speed and gives Bolt another good jolt. It’s a long way off but sprinters can’t think about that. They think about training goals. They think about preparation.
Then, when the time is right and the whole world is watching, they launch themselves, fearlessly, into a jet stream of their own making.