26 Aug Saying the sport needs Gatlin is like walking into a darkened room with your eyes wide shut
Comfortably the most entertaining session of athletics since 2012 it may well have been – but the preposterous premise of Good v Evil that the 100m final ultimately became does not mean the sport ‘needs’ Gatlin or those of his ilk in order to entertain and survive.
In a stinking final featuring four former convicted drug cheats, the media response to the battle between the Messiah and the Bogeyman may have entertained and brought a few more to their laptop screens but it was all frankly absurd, removed from the sport and careering into the realms of car-crash TV entertainment.
So is that what we do now? Do we go in for sensationalism? Create competition and headlines in order to capture a wider public regardless of an athlete’s dodgy history? If so, then we might as well start contemplating an almost Frankenstein-esque future, where ability and performance are in the realms of make-believe and inaccessible to those that don’t wish to partake.
If we condone the likes of Gatlin and support the idea of rivalry for rivalry’s sake to bump up viewing figures, then it becomes a slippery slope to a sport out of touch with reality. 100m match-ups of comic book proportions are more likely to damage the sport than become a lasting turn on and relegate its credibility to an even lower ebb – a position Lord Coe himself would struggle to arrest.
Victory for Gatlin wouldn’t have been the necessary evil to help rid the sport of its ills. One man alone can neither be the saviour of the sport, as Bolt was quite ridiculously labelled – not least by Cram’s gushing and embarrassingly triumphalist commentary – and nor is Gatlin the Guy Fawkes anti-hero we could or should be rooting for. He isn’t a maverick. He is at best a one-time (though twice-banned!) former drug cheat that could well still be benefiting from the effects of that testosterone cream rubbed into his buttocks by a rogue masseur.
Though rivalries between the best may make the sporting world go round, those based on athletes with unclean pasts are not the means by which to satisfy the drama we crave. Think back to the 2013 Great North Run. No, not last year when the threat of an upset seemed predetermined and the result already set. But the year previous when Kenenisa Bekele outsprinted Farah in the final mile along the South Shields sea front in one of the most edge-of-the-seat finishes of recent times. No gimmicks or doping pasts to ponder but just two of the top distance runners of all time going hammer and tong for 13.1 miles.
(And while we’re all getting excited about the rivalry between Bolt and Gatlin, is it not even more frustrating when athletes are actively denied the opportunity to renew fraught acquaintances on the track? A situation Andy Vernon has found himself in thanks to British Athletics and their short-sighted and apparently biased selection policy.
Team Al Sal and Kenya aside, Andy would have finished sixth based on his 27:42 personal best earlier this year. It renders his disappointment and subsequent tweet all the more understandable and further undermines the utterly baffling top-8 selection policy that British Athletics insist on at the continued detriment to the sport’s progression. But I suppose that’s by the by.)
So while it is true that we have been severely lacking competitive tete-a-tetes in athletics of late, particularly on the track, rivalries that would help thrust the spotlight away from doping would be more beneficial in the long run than damaging flash in the pan storylines.
The familiar sight of Bolt dancing in victory at the end of it all may not change the narrative in the short term – or inspire an instant systemic change that will prevent doping fiends from returning to and conquering on a world stage – but at least it isn’t the nihilistic, self-destructive result some hankered after.
So long as those with doping histories remain on the track and are lauded as necessary for exciting competition, the spectre of doping will continue to loom large – and the sport’s struggle for credibility among an already suspecting public and long-disillusioned core support will only continue.