Your friend wants to talk about Usain Bolt and Justin Gatlin
Kevin Sully | On 23, Aug 2015
Your friend wants to talk about Usain Bolt and Justin Gatlin. He woke up this morning around 11:00 a.m., plopped himself on the couch and turned on NBC. There was a track meet on and it looked like Bolt was about to race. That was interesting enough for him to put brunch on hold and watch the 100m final.
Your friend hasn’t watched any track meets this year, but armed with the knowledge of his 10 second viewing experience he is now an expert. He texted you after the race aired, unaware that you watched it five hours ago when it happens. This is a synopsis of that conversation:
You: You watched the race?
Friend: And you said Bolt was going to lose….
You: Look, remember Tiger Woods?
Friend: Pre or post Escalade incident?
You: Pre. Even when Woods wasn’t at his best he’d still win tournaments because his competition would cower in the final round. That was Bolt on Sunday. He’s at the stage of his career where his reputation exceeds his actual abilities, but he’s still Bolt. In the back of everyone’s mind, he’s capable of running under 9.6, even though he is years away from that. Bolt’s aura totally shook Gatlin. Gatlin ran that race like need to run 9.58 to win gold. He didn’t. All he needed to do was repeat his time from the semifinal heat two hours before and he’s the champion.
People might characterize this race as Bolt flipping a switch and squeezing past Gatlin. Really, it marked the first time Bolt won a race through pure intimidation. In the past, he’s never needed someone to beat themselves because he’s been so far ahead. This is a new era and Gatlin was his first victim.
Friend: So Gatlin was like the Seahawks throwing an interception at the goal line at the Super Bowl?
You: That’s too many cross-sport metaphors. Gatlin had the better season and was the better runner right up until the gun went off. He broke 9.80 five times this season, including the semifinal on Sunday. But his race in the final was bookended by an uncharacteristically bad start and an unraveling over the final meters, so I guess kind of like the Seahawks. Call it choking, underperforming, tightening up or something else. Bolt’s presence caused Gatlin to press and he ran slower because of it.
Friend: Maybe you are giving Bolt too much credit. How do you know it wasn’t just Gatlin choking on his own?
You: Because they’ve never raced since 2013. The only variable in this race for Gatlin was that Bolt was two lanes away.
Friend: Bolt was terrible all year and comes out of nowhere and wins. Seems shady to me……
You: Nobody is above suspicion in track and field, but this wouldn’t be the race to draw that conclusion. This was his slowest winning time of all his championships and he ran only a tad slower at the end of July. This race was more about Gatlin falling apart than Bolt summoning a dominant performance. If you told me that Bolt would run 9.79 in the final, I’d have thought Gatlin would win comfortably and so would pretty much everyone else who’s been paying attention to these two over their careers.
Friend: So Bolt is clean/good, and Gatlin is dirty/evil…a great day for a sport that I’ve only spent the last 45 minutes caring about. Track is saved!
You: No. Allegations of rampant cheating and corruption in the sport, are all swept away because of one race? Not to mention Bolt and Gatlin match-up again in the 200m in a few days. So if you are buying the narrative that Bolt winning is saving track and field (which I’m not) it might get a bit convoluted if Gatlin does beat him in the 200m.
Friend: I guess Bolt is still the GOAT…
You: Yes, but do you understand how the whole GOAT thing works? Bolt would have remained in that spot even if he lost on Sunday. If you are the greatest of all-time the only way you lose that distinction is if someone comes after you and exceeds your career. Gatlin wasn’t jumping over Bolt even if he beat him by two tenths of a second.
Carl Lewis hasn’t run a race in about 20 years, so if he was behind Bolt before Sunday, then he would have still been there regardless of the outcome of the race.
Friend: Like when Michael Jordan came back and played for the Wizards.
You: Actually, yes.
Friend: When did they start having track meets other than the Olympics?
You: Aren’t you going to be late for your brunch?
Hilarious, and so true as well! I really wanted a Gatlin victory because Bolt has this mystique of infallibility with the general public, and it’d be nice for them to know that he, too, can be beaten. Gatlin gave him the race with that terrible last 30m, but it was still exciting to watch unfold. Round two – the 200m – should be intriguing.