Beautiful and the damned

Today's 100 metres final looks certain to thrill its global audience but the event's drug culture casts a long shadow and many retain serious doubts about the race's true value. James Lawton, Chief Sports Writer, reports from Beijing

When the three fastest men in the world came into the "Bird's Nest" stadium yesterday the morning sunshine was brighter than at any other time in these 29th Olympics.

The shadows were in the mind. They will stay there – as Usain Bolt, Asafa Powell and Tyson Gay knew as well as anyone on earth when they eased through their first heats with the certainty of gods of sport set down among the relatively halt and lame – long after tonight's running of the 100 metres final. They also grew longer even in the floodlights of the night when, in the second series of heats, Bolt advanced with a casual hauteur and power that made his progress seem nothing so much as a ridiculous formality.

But, if they were all aware of the doubt, they also knew the enduring reality.

It is that when they kick from the blocks with the effect of an electric current they will be putting on offer once more the most compelling sight in sport, the most dramatic distillation of the human body's capacity for power and cohesion.

When they are doing it at around 9.7sec – and if you glance away for one of those seconds you are likely to miss the decisive thrust – even the most righteous will have to postpone moral judgement and concede that if Bolt and Powell, the Jamaicans, and the American Gay, are damned to endless suspicion they are also beautiful.

Beautiful, that is, in their ability to capture the attention of the world in a fraction of time.

We will not, in the burst of action, consider the cleanliness of their veins because we will simply not have time. Certainly we didn't in Seoul 20 years ago when Ben Johnson cast a permanent cloud over what had become the most anticipated race of all, an event that, with the kind of showmanship provided by a new type of Olympic superstar, Carl Lewis, had begun to meet the demands of a new world more closely. More so, certainly, than the old classic distance of the metric mile and its great but, by comparison, one-dimensional heroes like Australia's Herb Elliot and New Zealand's Peter Snell and our own Sebastian Coe.

What can't be forgotten about Johnson is that, however deeply he betrayed himself and his sport when he arrived in South Korea brimful of steroids, he did provide a spectacle that will surely live with all who saw it until the day they die. His explosion from the blocks, his devouring stride, left Lewis and the rest of the world in, respectively, disbelief and awe, and if the squalid details of his abuse were sickening, again, they could not obliterate the memory of a human being running so fast.

Now, 20 years on and with the recurring evidence of institutionalised and increasingly scientific cheating, and the fall of such as Marion Jones and Dwain Chambers, even the athletic culture of denial shows signs of breaking down.

For at least a decade after Johnson's fall, leading athletes and coaches insisted on the fiction that the guilty were rare bad apples.

This week both Gay and Powell conceded that the level of doubt about their event had reached a new high.

Powell did it with a bleak joke. He said that if he gave any more blood to the testers he might have difficulty in getting out of bed, quite apart from regaining the world record from Bolt, who has set it at a stunning 9.72, 0.7sec faster than Johnson's devastating but drug-doomed run.

Gay said: "I understand the scepticism. Is the Olympic 100 metres champion clean? Yeah, the question is inevitable. It comes with the territory as past champions have been revealed to be doped. There is just no doubt the Olympic champion has to carry himself as a clean athlete."

Ironically, in the wake of that statement, it is Gay, who hasn't raced for more than a month following a hamstring injury, who may draw some suspicion in some track and field circles if he springs back at the Jamaicans so quickly after a period out injured.

There is certainly a precedent for an injured sprinter to drop out of competition, nurse an injury and then return to the Olympics with the conviction of an experienced gunfighter. It was set, of course, by Ben Johnson.

Noting this, one athletics insider said here: "On the face of it, at least, it is a comparable situation. Johnson was beaten by Lewis in Zurich on the run-in to Seoul, then slipped from sight. His coach, Charlie Francis, claimed he didn't know where Johnson was for a long stretch. There was a theory that he was nursing his wounds in Jamaica. Let's put it this way, if Gay was to come here without racing and put in a winning performance, some people would be very suspicious."

Gay, the reigning world champion and American record holder, would have come here a heavy favourite but for Bolt's decision to pay more attention to the short sprint than his previously favoured 200 and 400 metres, and though Powell captured briefly the world record, he failed utterly to respond to the pressure Gay applied in the World Championship final in Osaka last year.

Says Gay: "Normally, the Olympic favourite is the fastest man in the world. With that comes a lot of pressure, and that's what Usain Bolt is getting now that he has the world record. People inside and out of Jamaica expect him to win it – people from the Jamaica camp are coming to me and saying, 'Man, don't spoil our clean sweep'. Well, that's good for me because Usain hasn't run a whole series of championship races at 100 metres. He has the record and I'm the world champion and I think that balances things off. Who's the favourite? A lot of people think I can win it and I'm one of them."

He does, though, acknowledge that Bolt may have, along with a great natural talent, the perfect temperament for the sudden-death challenge.

"I know Powell hurt when he lost his world record to Bolt, and I know he was upset when I beat him in Osaka, but Usain seems different. He doesn't seem to let things build up around him. He likes to do what he does – and have fun."

Bolt said it was so this week. "I'm enjoying all of this and I'm looking forward to the race," he said. "This is a good experience." And last night he proved it on the track. The authority of his running was matched only by the scale of his enjoyment of the world's attention.

Michael Johnson, who achieved athletic immortality in Atlanta 12 years ago, believes that Bolt is a certainty and Ato Boldon, who won four Olympic medals for Trinidad & Tobago, says: "Usain simply has more ways to win. At his size [6ft 5in and 13st] he shouldn't be able to move the way he does. He shouldn't be able to cover 100 metres in 41 strides."

Defiantly, Gay responds: "What we have here are the three fastest men in the world. Anything can happen."

Almost anything, perhaps he should say; anything except a run beyond the shadows of the mind. Such is the fate of the beautiful and the damned.

Usain Bolt: 9.72sec

Age 21. Born Trelawny, Jamaica. Honours Youngest world junior champion, at 200m in 2002 aged 15; world 200m bronze medallist in 2007. Personal best 9.72sec (world record).

He's going to win Fastest of the lot after running 9.76sec earlier this year in his fourth 100m and setting a world record of 9.72sec in his fifth on 31 May – and there's more to come if he can improve his technique at either end of the race.

He's not going to win Unravelling his huge frame from the blocks is always a challenge, and he cannot afford to get too far behind his fast-starting compatriot Asafa Powell.

Asafa Powell: 9.74sec

Age 25. Born Kingston, Jamaica. Honours Commonwealth 100m champion 2006, world 100m bronze medallist 2007. Personal best 9.74sec.

He's going to win Although Bolt has run faster, Powell has 9.74sec to his credit, plus five of the eight fastest times ever run, and his victory over the 21-year-old in their last meeting will bolster his confidence. Plans to get out first and stay ahead.

He's not going to win Yet to prove he can prevail on the big occasion. Lost concentration at last year's World Championships when Gay caught him. Under huge pressure not to flop again.

Tyson Gay: 9.77 sec

Age 26. Born Lexington, Kentucky. Honours World 100m and 200m champion 2007. Personal best 9.77sec (9.68sec, world's fastest recorded time, but with following wind of 4.1 metres per second, well over legal limit of 2mps).

He's going to win Shown he can cut it at global level by winning world 100 and 200m titles last year. Ran superbly in last month's US trials. Maintains he is now recovered from hamstring injury.

He's not going to win He's the nervous type. Almost blew it at the trials when he mistook the finish line in his 100m first round. So who's going to win? Usain Bolt.

Shameful history

Ben Johnson

On September 24, 1988, Johnson beat Carl Lewis in the 100m final at the Seoul Olympics, lowering his own world record to 9.79sec. Johnson would later remark that he would have been even faster had he not raised his hand in the air just before he finished the race. However, Johnson's urine samples were found to contain stanozolol (an anabolic steroid), and he was disqualified three days later. He later admitted to having used steroids when he set his 1987 world record, which caused the International Amateur Athletic Federation (now International Association of Athletics Federations) to rescind that record. In 1993, after returning to competition, he was found guilty of doping at a race in Montreal – this time for excess testosterone – and was subsequently banned for life by the IAAF.

Justin Gatlin

The American sprinter won the gold at the 2004 Athens Olympics with the second-fastest time – 9.85sec – in Olympic history. Gatlin gave a positive drugs test in 2006 for "testosterone or its precursor"and later that year agreed to an eight-year ban from athletics, avoiding a lifetime ban after co-operating with the doping authorities. In a final ruling in 2007, he received only a four-year ban. However, his best time, 9.77sec – which was set in May 2006 in Doha, Qatar, and equalled the world record – was annulled.

Marion Jones

The American sprinter won five medals – three gold, two bronze – at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, but was later stripped of every Olympic medal dating back to Sydney after admitting using performance-enhancing drugs. In October 2007, Jones admitted that she had taken steroids before the Sydney Olympics and admitted lying about her steroid use to two grand juries, Jones was given a two-year suspension from competition, and retired from athletics in 2007. In 2008, she was sentenced to six months in jail for lying to investigators working on the Balco steroid case. Throughout her athletic career Jones had been accused of taking performance-enhancing drugs. Even in high school she had been accused of doping, but, with the help of a lawyer, was acquitted. Yet she never failed a drug test in her entire career.

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