Nick Butler

I had an exciting, if rather terrifying experience, today when called in to do a television interview on CNN’s World Sport programme about the weekend’s 100 metres showdown between Usain Bolt and Justin Gatlin.

Not have had any experience at this sort of thing, I jotted down a few reflections on the race and resolved to keep my hands still and speak slowly, assuming it would all flow nicely from there. After enjoying my first taste of a Green Room and a make-up studio - far from reassured by my taxi driver’s quip that he “better get a move on if they’re going to have enough time to make you look good” - I sat down in an empty London studio to await the start of the programme in Atlanta, expecting a nice easy opener about the race itself.

“So…”the presenter began, “is Usain Bolt the saviour of athletics?”

Taken by surprise, I duly made a rookie error every interviewee and exam-taking student has made at one point or another, and began answering the question I was expecting rather than the one I was asked.

“It was a fantastic race, showing once again how you can never write off Usain Bolt, the greatest racer in the history of the sport,” I blathered in my best David Coleman voice, put off further by the fact everything I said was being loudly relayed back through my earpiece a split-second later.

Confidence now gone, I started heading back in the direction of the question before veering off-piste and stammering out some vague and badly-made points about how the whole “good versus evil” script was a marketing ploy designed to raise the profile of the race.

“No, I don’t think he is the saviour of athletics,” I concluded weekly, in a much more resolute fashion than the rest of my answer.

Usain Bolt performs best under pressure, unlike some people in the spotlight of a television interview ©Twitter
Usain Bolt performs best under pressure, unlike some people in the spotlight of a television interview ©Twitter

With audio problems resolved, I was much more confident answering the next two questions about the race itself, but spent my journey home annoyed with myself, going over everything I should have said in my first answer.  

The point is, in many ways Bolt is athletics’ saviour and its shining light. He appears clean, crucially, with no convictions or allegations hanging over his name. He’s also charismatic and likeable, with a personality that has enabled him to become a genuine sporting superstar; one of the most recognisable faces on the planet with a popularity that far transcends athletics. Most importantly of all, he is fast, really fast, with a magnificent ability for saving his best for the biggest stage.

Gatlin, on the other hand, is a figurehead for a tainted era, twice involved in doping scandals and then returning to the global stage with barely a trace of remorse.

Nothing sells better than a Hollywood-style good versus evil script, so it was only natural the race would be billed in this way.

Much as we like our sporting heroes to be clean cut and likeable, we also like them to be up against some sort of pantomime villain. A gloating and snarling Australian cricketer or a swaggering Mike Tyson-esque boxer, perhaps. While we have been blessed recently by the era of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray in tennis, the one thing missing has been the fact they are all so nice, to the extent it is difficult to find one to hate. The personality of the brattish Australian Nick Kyrgios is,  therefore, not completely a bad thing.

In this sense I was broadly correct with my rambling marketing ploy point, albeit it has been one largely made by the media rather than those directly responsible for promoting the race.

Usain Bolt and Justin Gatlin have been billed as representing
Usain Bolt and Justin Gatlin have been billed as representing "good" and "evil" to add extra excitement to a sporting contest ©Getty Images

But, in a bigger-picture sense it is indeed ridiculous to consider Bolt the “saviour” due to his performance last night.

Doping problems certainly existed in athletics before the race, but they still exist now as well and all his victory did was shield the sport from another barrage of criticism for one more day. For all we know, Gatlin could triumph over 200m or in the relay and the negativity will start all over again.

The American, just one of four finalists and five semi-finalists in Beijing to have served bans, is one of the most high-profile drug cheats in sport, but he is by no means the only one, or even the worst one, and there are surely many more yet to be exposed.

Read any one of the many good autobiographies of athletes who have resorted to doping, those by cyclists David Miller and Tyler Hamilton for example, and it is obvious that doping is far from a black and white issue. Someone who resorts to taking drugs in order to survive in the brutal world of professional sport today is by nature dishonest, but not necessarily a bad person, and certainly not definitely “evil”.

Gatlin himself made this point rather well in a BBC 5 Live interview before his boycott of all British media today.

"I don't see Usain Bolt saving anybody from house fires,” he said. ”I don't see myself plotting anything in a big cave with evil minions.”

Lance Armstrong was once considered another sporting saviour ©AFP/Getty Images
Lance Armstrong was once considered another sporting saviour ©AFP/Getty Images

Another important point is that we have been there before with saviours in sport. Lance Armstrong, after he returned from cancer to win the 1999 Tour de France a year after the Festina doping scandal ravaged the peloton, was hailed as such a saviour, a shining light of a newer and cleaner era who turned out to be worse than anyone who had gone before.

Gatlin himself, when he emerged in 2004 to win Olympic gold in Athens soon after the BALCO scandal, was also seen as such a saviour, only to be exposed two years later. And the more they are praised and trumpeted, the harder these figures have fallen when found-out.

I am not saying there are any suspicions surrounding Bolt, there are none to my knowledge, but this is something that bears thinking about. As my colleague Mike Rowbottom has pointed out, it is wrong to put the future of the sport on a single person’s shoulders, be it Usain Bolt, Sebastian Coe or anyone else.

But what we should be thankful about is having as great a champion as Bolt, someone who has put athletics in the spotlight for all the right reasons. Someone who, unlike me in my television debut, revels and performs at his best under pressure.

And, whoever wins, let's hope Bolt v Gatlin mark two over 200m is just as exciting.