RIO DE JANEIRO: Usain Bolt will launch an audacious bid for three Olympic sprint gold medals for an unprecedented third time as the perfect antidote to a year of turmoil in his drug-tainted sport.
Track and field has been dragged through the ringer since Sebastian Coe took over as president of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) in Beijing last August on a “zero-tolerance” anti-doping mandate.
Widespread corruption at the heart of the IAAF, involving Coe’s disgraced predecessor Lamine Diack, was linked to shocking levels of institutionalised doping in Russia, one of track and field’s powerhouses.
In November, the IAAF issued a blanket ban of Russia’s track and field team over that state-sponsored doping, ruling that only US-based long jumper Darya Klishina was eligible to compete at the Rio Games, which start on August 5.
The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) rejected a wider appeal by 67 track and field athletes including treble Olympic gold-chasing pole vault tsarina Yelena Isinbayeva, world 110m hurdles champion Sergey Shubenkov and world high jump champion Mariya Kuchina.
Whistleblower Yuliya Stepanova, the Russian 800m runner who lifted the lid on systematic doping fraud in her country, had been hoping to compete after being accepted by the IAAF as a neutral.
But Games organisers, the International Olympic Committee (IOC), said the Olympic Charter does not allow such a gesture even if they have invited Stepanova, who dubbed the decision “unfair”, and her husband to Rio as guests.
One supporter of the IAAF’s blanket ban on Russia is Bolt, the six-time Olympic gold medallist who is also world record holder in the 100, 200 and 4x100m relay.
“This will scare a lot of people, or send a strong message that the sport is serious about cleaning up,” Bolt said.
“It’s sad, but rules are rules. I don’t make the rules, I don’t make the decisions. I just have to go along with it. If you feel like banning the whole team is the right action, then I’m all for it.”
IAAF president Coe added: “I feel the pain that we all feel at the moment because we love our sport. It’s been painful to see where our sport is at the moment in public perception.”
And so the stage is set for Bolt in his quest for an unprecedented third Olympic treble.
“This is where history is going to be made, I’m excited to put on a show for the entire world to see. This is my final Olympics, it’s a big one,” he said.
Brushing aside any concerns about the hamstring injury which forced him to withdraw from his country’s Olympic trials earlier this month, the Jamaican sprint king ran a solid time of 19.89sec in his first competitive 200m of this season in London last week.
“I’m getting there. I am not fully in shape,” said the 29-year-old. “I need more work, but over time I will get there. I thought the cornering wasn’t perfect. But I am feeling good.
“At least I came here, ran the race and had no injuries. I am ready to defend my Olympic titles. The main thing is I am injury free.”
Ironically, Bolt’s closest rival looks like being Justin Gatlin, the 34-year-old American who has served two doping bans and credits his longevity on the track to time spent off it due to his enforced absences.
Bolt warned Gatlin, who won sprint silvers behind the Jamaican at last year’s Beijing world championships, that “I am in much better shape, so I won’t leave it to the last second.”
While the Jamaican and US squads, and in-form Dutchwoman Dafne Schippers, battle it out in the sprints, Britain’s Mo Farah will bid to defend his 5,000 and 10,000m from the usual Ethiopian and Kenyan competitors.
Racing in London alongside Bolt, Farah clocked 12:59.29 over 5,000m, the fastest mark of the year, the fourth time in his career that he has dipped under 13 minutes and his fastest time in the discipline since before the London Olympics.
“This is my best form (heading into a major event). I am in good shape. I have to keep my feet on the ground. Anything can happen over the next two-and-a-half weeks. I have to stay patient and cool,” Farah said.