By Jonathan Gault
September 23, 2019
Usain Bolt pulled off more than a few magic tricks during his reign as world’s fastest man. He set still-standing world records of 9.58 seconds in the 100 meters and 19.19 in the 200. He transcended a sport struggling for popularity to become one of the world’s most famous and popular athletes. And he made it through his entire career by largely avoiding the clouds of doping speculation that have clung to the men’s 100 meters since Ben Johnson was stripped of the Olympic 100-meter title in 1988.
|Men’s 100 race times
Prelims: Friday, September 27, 11:05 a.m. ET
Semis: Saturday, September 28, 11:45 a.m. ET
Final: Saturday, September 28, 3:15 p.m. ET
How to watch: TV/streaming information
That last one is no small feat. When Bolt burst onto the scene at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, the reigning Olympic champion, Justin Gatlin, was in the midst of a four-year ban for using testosterone. The reigning world champion, Tyson Gay, who would become one of Bolt’s biggest rivals and the second-fastest man in history, was eventually banned for using steroids in 2013. Gatlin’s predecessor as Olympic champion, Maurice Greene, allegedly paid for steroids in 2003 and 2004 (Greene denies the allegations) but was never sanctioned. 1992 Olympic champion Linford Christie was banned from the sport in 1999 after testing positive for the anabolic steroid nandrolone.
Yet Bolt, despite running over a tenth of a second faster than any other man in history, floated above it all. He still had his doubters, yes, in part because anyone who does what Bolt did in his events will always face suspicion, but as of yet, there has been nothing linking Bolt to performance-enhancing drugs. That’s rare at the top of the sprinting world.
“We’re stuck in a place where there are athletes that are tainted,” 1996 Olympic 100 champion Donovan Bailey said last week to Sports Max. “I am to be the only world champion and Olympic champion, me and Bolt without taint, the only two.”
Bolt retired in 2017 — no, he’s not coming back — which means that the 2019 World Championships, which open Friday in Doha, Qatar, will be the first without him since 2003. And with Bolt gone, there is once again controversy at the very top of the meet’s marquee event — not that it ever truly went away, with Gatlin continuing to win medals well into his 30s. Remember, Gatlin, not Bolt, won the men’s 100 in 2017 (Bolt was 3rd).
American Christian Coleman enters the meet as the heavy favorite to win the gold medal. The 23-year-old earned the silver at the last World Championships in London by beating Usain Bolt in the last individual race of Bolt’s career, and since then has broken the world record at 60 meters indoors and clocked the world’s fastest time at 100 meters in 2017, 2018, and 2019. He has one loss at that distance in the last 15 months, and the man who beat him, Noah Lyles, isn’t running the 100 in Doha.
But last month, news broke that Coleman was in danger of missing the World Championships for three whereabouts failures — essentially, missing three drug tests — in a 12-months span, which triggers a two-year ban (that is sometimes reduced to one year). Coleman, due to a technicality that allowed him to backdate his first failure before the 12-month window, was cleared (read here for the full explanation).
Coleman has vehemently denied any wrongdoing, saying that he doesn’t take supplements of any kind, legal or illegal. In a video posted to his YouTube channel on September 11, Coleman took responsibility for his three whereabouts failures, saying that in each case, he forgot to update his whereabouts information when his plans changed.
“Sometimes, you forget to update the app and it just it is what it is,” Coleman said. “But it has nothing to do with doping. It has nothing to do with trying to dodge tests.”
Then Coleman went on the offensive. He criticized USADA for allowing news of his case to leak (the Daily Mail broke the story; USADA only commented publicly once Coleman acknowledged the report), the media for inaccurate coverage — “I feel like going forward, what will continue to push the sport forward is if the media is not looking to report on negative stories,” Coleman said — and complained that he is tested too often. Coleman’s father, Seth, even went on the LetsRun messageboard to defend his son, pointing out that when Coleman broke the 60-meter world record in 2018, he drove to a diner at 2 a.m. to get tested so the record could be ratified (it wasn’t, but Coleman broke the record again a month later, and that one was).
All of this leaves the men’s 100 meters in a very interesting spot heading into Doha. Coleman will, correctly, point out that he is tested more than almost every track & field athlete and has never failed a test, that his greatest crime is gross negligence. His critics will point out that Lance Armstrong never officially failed a test either and that, logically, it doesn’t make sense that someone with as much to lose as Coleman, the presumptive 2020 Olympic champion, would risk even coming close to a third whereabouts failure in 12 months.
“When you’ve missed two, and you know 12 months is coming up, you get very, very, very diligent,” Olympic 1500-meter medalist Jenny Simpson told LetsRun.com. “Or you should…If you miss three tests, it’s either because you’re cheating or because you’re an idiot and under both circumstances, you shouldn’t be able to compete.”
Coleman is aware of the challenge he now faces. Though there is no ban on his record, his reputation has taken a hit, and there are some critics he will never be able to win back. And the faster he runs, the more critics he will gain. Track fans have been burned by men’s 100-meter runners too many times.
“Once a situation like this happens, it’s hard to try to rebuild your reputation and have people not speculate,” Coleman said in his YouTube video.
Just as in the pre-Bolt era, Justin Gatlin is still around. In June, Gatlin ran 9.87 seconds at age 37 — the fourth-fastest time of 2019, and the fastest ever by a man that old — and will be a serious medal contender in Doha, assuming he’s healthy.
Gatlin, the reigning world champion, faces questions of his own. In July, one of his training partners, American 200-meter runner Kenny Bednarek, said that Gatlin is once again working with controversial sprint coach Dennis Mitchell. Gatlin said he fired Mitchell in 2017 after Mitchell, who was banned for testosterone during his career as an athlete, was caught on tape offering to procure testosterone and HGH for an undercover reporter. Then on September 3, five days after he faded to a 4th-place showing in the Diamond League final, Gatlin ran just 10.29 at a race in Zagreb, pulling up toward the end of the race while grabbing his hamstring. Two days later, Gatlin’s agent said that he wasn’t injured and would be back in training before the end of the week.
This is important because Gatlin is one of three men at Worlds who has broken 9.90 this year (Noah Lyles, the Diamond League champion in the 100 this year, has also done it but he’s doing only the 200). The others: Coleman and NCAA champion Divine Oduduru of Nigeria and Texas Tech. At the American collegiate championships in early June, Oduduru recorded the second-greatest one-day 100/200 double in history (9.86/19.73), but he looks wiped from a long collegiate season and hasn’t run faster than 10.26 or 20.54 since.
Outside of that group, there are men who have excelled at the area level but have yet to medal at a global championship, such as Commonwealth and African champion Akani Simbine of South Africa (9.92 this year but only 5th in the DL final) and European champion Zharnel Hughes of Great Britain (9.95 this year but only 6th in DL final). And there are men who have medalled on the biggest stages now striving to recapture that form, such as Jamaica’s Yohan Blake (9.69 pb, 9.96 sb and 3rd at DL final) and Canada’s Andre De Grasse. De Grasse, who medalled in both the 100 and 200 at the last Olympics, has run a seasonal best in both the 100 (9.97) and 200 (19.87) in his last two races — both of which were his fastest times in those distances since Rio.
Nineteen men in total have broken 10.00 this year — the same amount as each of the last three years (the all-time record is 25 from 2015) — but the Diamond League runner-up in the 100 was China’s Xie Zhenye, who has a seasonal best of just 10.01.
On paper, no one in this field has shown the ability to challenge Coleman this year. Outside of the windy USATF championships, Coleman’s slowest time this year is 9.86 — which would still make him the fastest man of 2019. However, there is one big question mark surrounding Coleman. The public has no idea what his current form is as he hasn’t raced since July; he skipped the Diamond League meets in Birmingham and Zurich while he waited for his whereabouts case to be settled.
If he’s in form, he should win despite the long layoff. That 9.86 he ran came in his season opener after a layoff of over eight months, so two months without a race shouldn’t doom his chances.
Barring a false start or injury, he likely will become world champion on the night of September 28, and his reign as World’s Fastest Man will officially begin. As usual in this event, it will be accompanied by questions.
LRC Betting Guide: Coleman is listed as a 7/10 favorite at 888sport.com — that implies a 58.1% win rate. We think the odds that he wins this race are higher than that.
From The 2017 Archives: LRC Was Usain Bolt’s stunning loss last night actually a great development for the future of track and field as it proves Bolt is clean?’
LRC Justin Gatlin Steals the Show in Usain Bolt’s Final 100M Race to Win 2017 World Title at Age 35