If you're Jamaican in any shape or form, you've probably come through the last 10 days with, at best, some sense of relief–that the IAAF World Championships are over. Whatever you feelings might have been when the events started on August 3, I guarantee that nowhere in your wildest dreams did you imagine half of what befell the Jamaican team, overall, or Usain Bolt, personally.
Let me get some personal business out of the way, first. I went on record last year saying that Dr. Usain Bolt should have gone out on the (unexpected, but welcome) high of double Olympic golds in the 100/200 in Rio. From my viewpoint as a former athlete, it was the best of all worlds to retain that amazing pair of titles for the third time. The legend was cemented. It had the appeal in my mind of then leaving the upcoming IAAF event as an opportunity to say farewell to London, which had treated him so well in 2012 and where good memories galore resided. Dr. Bolt could happily have been an IAAF ambassador, and I imagine ticket sales would have been even better had he been committed to be present at several sessions during the 10 days, even though he would not be gracing the track. He would be there to glad hand and wave and smile and be in many pictures. But, Dr. Bolt and the IAAF and agents and promoters, etc. had other fish to fry, and in my mind went where they did not need to go: the the place where the legacy could be tainted, for no real gain. Fast forward.
Dr. Bolt suffered a series of injuries after Rio and his form was again in question. Defending in London would be a tall order. Then, tragedy struck: Dr. Bolt's good friend, Germaine Mason died in a motorcycle accident on the Palisadoes Road, in mid-April, after leaving a party event with Dr. Bolt. Several weeks of funeral-related activities took precedence over training. I imagine the emotional toll of that tragedy would have been enough to persuade many a person to put off a lot of upcoming events. When training was derailed by some 3 weeks, this also put Dr. Bolt's title defence into a very dicey position. But, he's a man of commitments. He kept his word. Fast forward, again.
Usain Bolt did not run a great 100 meters race in final, though he had looked great in the semis. He came in 3rd, but gold went to… Justin Gatlin, who had strived and failed miserably to dethrone Dr. Bolt in Rio. Now, Gatlin's victory is momentous for one of several reasons that impinge on the Bolt legacy. It would have been that, despite having been found guilty of using performance enhancing drugs, Gatlin had not been able to beat Bolt, even when (again) he had come off an injury-plagued season to compete in Rio. The narrative of how Bolt stayed clean and beat a man labeled as a drugs cheat was firmly in place. Now, we have to deal with all the 'what-if' scenarios underlying a 'Gatlin defeats Bolt' outcome.
I have very strong views on drug-taking in sports. I am for life bans (or for practical purposes, let's say to age 50), not least to remove any question whatsoever that the performance-enhancements could ever be brought into play. I do not want some scientist to tell me in 1960 that these drugs only have a 5 year effect, then for a scientist in 1980 to tell me that the effect may last as long as 10 years, then for a scientist in 2018 to tell me that the effects could be there for 20 years. So, once someone has been caught and convicted of the drugs-taking 'crime', the 'time' they must serve should be 'forever' as an active athlete. That is the ultimate price for having gotten morals mixed up and felt that surreptitiously making the world uneven in your favour should leave you with no rewards. All of the records for the time when it is proved that drugs were being taken, should be expunged, and (though complicated), all the events adjusted to remove the offender's name from them; medals get redistributed etc. Now, while that may go some way towards redressing the balance, it may be that some people suffered permanent loss because they were defeated by cheats. For instance, the lucrative endorsements tend to go to winners, not those who tried had but came second or worse. Sports companies will not or cannot reverse contracts, or take away endorsements and give the money to others backward-looking. That, to me, is one of the graver injustices. So, we remove all of that problem by making it that cheats gain nothing, or near nothing.
But, that is a problem that sports administrations must address and correct; individual athletes cannot do that. In that vein, we can see across the range of professional sports, how varied are the attitudes towards so-called performance-enhancing drugs. Some sports, like golf, have poorly defined policies and poor testing, and end up chasing a player for suspected use of deer antler powder. Other sports, like swimming, are rigorous, yet have shortish time bans and get athletes having to face just-returned cheats and put in a bind about what to do. Some, like Katie Ledecky, make their feelings known publicly and in events; others whisper disapprovals; others say nothing or show approval. Countries like Russia show how massive the 'industry' can become and we know of the whole Eastern European/Soviet structures of sports 'medicine'.
But, the Bolt legacy had the cruelest twist (almost literally) to come. When, he was poised for the glorious end, in a relay, on the last leg, and having to chase men down to win. His body said 'No mas!' Pulled muscle. Crumpled to the ground. Fallen, like he'd been wounded. NOT THIS WAY!
I wont even go into the possible reasons, and if the longer than usual delay in the waiting area was part of the problem. It never had to be.
My enduring memory of Dr. Usain Bolt should not have been his body on the track and him being supported by his team mates. His glory deserved much better. Giving him a part of the track has a funny bitterness to it, don't you think?
Finally, what Bolt's legacy is about is the integrity of the athlete-hero.
We often think we have that locked down, then some serious flaw surfaces: Babe Ruth…Pete Rose…O. J. Simpson…Tiger Woods…Lance Armstrong…Paul Gascoine. We see others and hope and pray that the flaw doesn't surface: Wayne Gretzky…Jack Nicklaus…Arnold Palmer…Roger Federer…Mark Spitz…Virginia Wade…Mary Peters.
It's clear, from reports surfacing in recent days, that some of Bolt's Jamaican team mates lack that essential integrity that is needed to be an athlete-hero. If even one of the stories of seemingly petty infighting is true, it tells us much about what Dr. Bolt meant to Jamaican sport, and what so many have to learn, yet may not be able to absorb. Putting on your spikes, and putting on the uniform of a team is more than dressing up. Playing the part is not about acting, it's about the reality of strong and honest individual character. That an athlete who has been given the honour of representing a nation, let alone a club team or just performing solo in front of an audience, finds it in him- or herself to put him- or herself about that honour is a total disgrace. Like with drugs bans, one sanction should apply: Sayonara.
Dr. Bolt has gone, and his playful genius as a track man will be lost for the immediate future, but let's hope it inspires others to be more than a little natural and playful when pressure is weighing heavily.