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The legacy of Usain Bolt: Looking beyond the medals and records

ANALYST
Feature
263   //    25 Sep 2017, 12:31 IST

Olympics Day 12 - Athletics
Usain Bolt, the hero the sport needed and the one it deserves

If people are asked about what comes first to mind when the name ‘Usian Bolt’ is said, the usual responses would be along the lines of ‘superhuman’, ‘worldbeater’, ‘the greatest sprinter of all time’. And few would argue against the opinion that Bolt has earned the right to be described with each of those words or phrases.

Now that he has retired after an incredible career, it is time to look back and see what he achieved and what his legacy is. Is it the inhuman record times which might take years or maybe even decades to be broken? Or is it the sheer number of gold medals he won at the very top level in the Olympics and the World Championships?

In my opinion, it is neither of the two. This piece attempts to shed some light on an aspect of Bolt’s contribution to the sport of sprinting that is often overlooked but is probably the most significant.

To understand the context, one needs to go back to a time when Bolt was just a mere two years old. But this part of the story is not about Bolt. It is about an event that took place more than 8000 miles away in Seoul, South Korea.

It was the infamous men’s 100m final of the 1988 Olympics. Canada’s Ben Johnson clinched gold with a time of 9.79 seconds, a world record time. USA’s Carl Lewis was second with a time of 9.92 seconds. However, two days later Johnson tested positive for steroids and he was stripped of his medal.

Johnson’s previous world record time was also erased and Lewis’ silver was upgraded to gold and his time became the new world record. Linford Christie of United Kingdom was the new silver medalist and USA’s Calvin Smith was awarded the bronze. But over the next decade and a half, it became clear that Johnson was not the only offender.

It was revealed in 2003 that Carl Lewis had failed three drugs tests during the 1988 Olympic trials, but the results were covered up by the US Olympic Committee. Christie too failed a test after the final but was cleared by the IOC. Dennis Mitchell, the fifth-placed finisher in the original race, also tested positive ten years later. Therefore, it is for good reason that the race has been christened ‘The Dirtiest Race in History’.

Ben Johnson
'The Dirtiest Race in History'. (From Right to Left): Ben Johnson celebrates as Carl Lewis, Linford Christie and Calvin Smith follow him to the finish line. Barring Smith, all have tested positive for drug-related offences.

The men’s sport was not the only one under threat. Though not officially tested and implicated, USA’s Florence Griffith-Joyner, the women’s 100m champion in Seoul, is also widely believed to have used performance-enhancing drugs. In Seoul 1988, Flo-Jo, as she was nicknamed, lowered here 100m and 200m personal best by 0.47 seconds and 0.62 seconds respectively.

Such a reduction was, and still is unprecedented and as per many experts, is not ‘do-able’ without drugs. Her sudden retirement in 1989, days after the IAAF introduced random testing casts more doubt on Flo-Jo and her success. The fact that Flo-Jo’s times have not yet been beaten in almost 30 years, despite a general improvement in the fitness and physique of athletes, gives more credibility to the notion that she probably used drugs.

The IAAF introduced random testing in 1989, with the objective to deter potential drug cheats. But the number of top sprinters who have been caught since then clearly show that it hasn’t quite been an effective deterrent.

Most of the top sprinters in the last 25 years have tested positive at some point or the other. The list includes illustrious names such as Justin Gatlin, Tyson Gay, Shawn Crawford and Tim Montgomery of USA, Asafa Powell, Nesta Carter and Yohan Blake of Jamaica, and Dwain Chambers of Britain. USA’s Maurice Greene did not fail any test but has been accused of purchasing drugs for his teammates.

Prominent offenders in women’s sprinting include USA’s Marion Jones and Kelli White, Jamaica’s Veronica Campbell Brown, Shelly-Ann Fraser and Sherone Simpson, and Germany’s Katrin Krabbe. The list of big names in the ‘Hall of Shame’ kept growing as the years passed by.

The scandals dealt a massive blow to the sport which, in the opinion of many, was beyond repair. However, there were the odd champions here and there who stayed clean and won on merit.

Canada’s Donovan Bailey and USA’s Michael Johnson, Gail Devers and Allyson Felix are probably the most prominent ones. But for a sizeable section of the sport’s audience in the past few decades, one of the first thoughts that would come to mind whenever a new star would emerge would be ‘Is this athlete winning it fair and square?’

And at arguably the point the sport of sprinting has ever been through, a Jamaican walked in and took it upon himself to not only lift the sport up from the depths it had fallen to but put it on a pedestal and give the sport new hope. This is Usain Bolt’s greatest legacy and it can never be measured in terms of medals or records.

Someone will eventually run faster than him and someone will collect more gold medals but Bolt will forever be the man who gave sprinting a new ray of hope and as lovers of the sport, we can only hope the stars of tomorrow will carry the baton. Thank you, Bolt, for the sport and we fans are indebted to you. 

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