Tuesday, 30 August 2011

The Future Arrives As Bolt Faces Reality Check

By Shane Thomas

The men's 100 metres final has come and gone at the World Athletics Championships, and as you can see in the photo above, Usain Bolt isn't the one who's celebrating.

So what happened? Ever since his remarkable showing at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, Bolt has been the sprint king. Whether the 100 metres or 200 metres, the Jamaican has wiped the floor with his competition and raised the bar of what people thought was possible in sprinting. Now Bolt hasn't had a particularly good build-up to these championships; he's missed Diamond League events with injury problems, and was beaten early in the season by the American, Tyson Gay - who seemed to be destined for a career as the perennial nearly man.

But Gay was absent from these championships, and Bolt's countryman, Asafa Powell also missed out on running in Daegu, due to a groin problem. Powell has run the fastest 100 metre time of 2011 so far, but with him and Gay gone, it seemed that all potential roadblocks had been removed. The path was clear for Bolt to retain his world title, and thrill the South Korean crowd with another potentially supersonic and effervescent display.

Watching Usain Bolt is an occasion in itself, and I made sure that I was awake on Sunday morning to watch him in action. Listening to the television commentary, they had already ordained Bolt as the winner. As far as they - and most of the press corps were concerned - the script has been written in advance. This was another chapter in the stellar career of Bolt. We had our king, let him go and claim his crown.

One shouldn't be too harsh on the media for this prognostication. Bolt has redefined the boundaries of what is possible in track sprinting, and while some has questioned his state of readiness in the lead-up to the championships, those doubts seemed to be allayed in the qualification rounds as Bolt stormed through to the final with absolute ease. Not only was the man with the reputation, but - once again - he was the man in form.

As the runners lined up in their respective lanes, Bolt was at his most ostentatious. As his name was announced to the crowd, the camera pulled up alongside him. Never one to miss out on an opportunity to grab the spotlight, he pointed to the runner on his left, and then to the one on his right, before dismissively shaking his head. It should be stated that Bolt never means any disrespect with such behaviour. It irritates some, but it has become all a part of the package with Bolt, and it entertains a lot more people than it annoys. The preamble was over, the runners set themselves in their blocks, and then...

Off went Bolt. The only problem was that the gun hadn't. The Jamaican false-started. The rules on this are clear. One false-start and you are automatically disqualified. No-one knew this better than Bolt as he roared & tore off his vest in pure frustration, the defence of his world title over. The disbelief on Bolt's face was matched by the reaction of the crowd. Athletics' marquee name left the track in ignominy.

Now many have said that this has shown the folly of the "one false-start and you're out rule". A year ago Tyson Gay said, "If Usain Bolt false started it would be a wake-up call. If it happened at the World Championships or Olympics, the result is going to need an asterisk by its side. Without him, it wouldn’t make sense."

That may be so, but misses the point altogether. Rightly or wrongly, these are the rules that are in place. And it is a proviso that has existed in swimming for decades with negligible criticism from the punditocracy. The reason that this has now become a story is because it happened to Bolt, who had been hitherto untouchable. I once wrote on this blog that every now & then, sport produces a person who bestrides their event like a god, making it all the more implausible when they are shown to be a mere mortal.

With Bolt gone, the race was down to seven mere mortals. The god was no more, leaving the field clear for an opportunist. And it was Bolt's fellow Jamaican, Yohan Blake who seized his opportunity.

Blake is Bolt's friend and training partner, and has been dubbed by the Olympic Champion as, "the future". He is only 21, and is the youngest man to run the 100 metres in under 10 seconds. Blake showed on Sunday that not only has he the talent, but the strength of character to not be distracted by his friend's disqualification. Rather than live up to his moniker, Blake has arrived on the big stage. In the end, it was a comfortable win, as he ran the only sub-10 second time in the race.

Bolt will be back to defend his title in the 200 metres, and in the post-race interviews Blake predicted that Bolt will be "angry", when he returns to the track in South Korea. We've seen Bolt beatific, but what will he be like enraged?

Either way, it'll be must-see television. Part of me thinks that this makes the story of Bolt all the more compelling. Many find serial winners boring, but this adds a delicious layer of drama to the 100 meters at the Olympics next summer. We thought that London 2012 would be Bolt's coronation. Now it could be his redemption.

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