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Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt has spent three years proving that he can dominate the struggling sport of track and field with his transcendent performances and megawatt presence. In a sport in which even gold medalists live and work in obscurity, he is a global celebrity. Last weekend in Daegu, South Korea, at the 13th world championships, Bolt went beyond even that and overtook the entire meet by not running in his championship final.
In Sunday night's final of the 100 meters—the event in which Bolt, now 25, won the 2008 Olympic gold medal and the '09 world title, lowering the world record from 9.72 to 9.58 seconds—the world's most famous runner false-started and was disqualified from the race. Under a rule adopted by track's international governing body in 2010, any starter who jumps the gun even once is tossed out. (The previous rule, in effect from '03 through '09, charged the first false start to the field and disqualified an individual for the next one.)
Even as Bolt's countryman Yohan Blake, a precocious 21, won the race in 9.92 seconds (Walter Dix of the U.S. was second), the Bolt Affair overtook the meet. He returns to the track on Friday in the opening round of the 200 (in which he is also the Olympic and world champion, and world-record holder) and will run on Sunday on Jamaica's 4 √ó 100-meter relay team.
Bolt had struggled with a back injury in 2010 and had not run at his best in '11. But in Daegu he looked very good in his quarterfinal and semifinal heats, sprinkling the air with promise. When Bolt is on, his races are performance art, and when he was pulled from the race, the stadium—the meet, the sport—collectively slouched. "It took some air out of me," says injured U.S. sprinter Tyson Gay, the second-fastest man in history, who was sitting in the stands for the race.
Almost immediately the controversial rule came under fire—although not from Bolt, who did not comment after the race except to tell reporters who followed him off the track: "Looking for tears? Not gonna happen." Most pointedly, bronze medalist Kim Collins of Saint Kitts-Nevis said, "At least give one false start to the field. In fairness to the people of the world. They want to see [Bolt]. The show must go on. One simple mistake and he's gone."
In the aftermath of the DQ, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) took the unusual step of releasing a statement that first said it was "disappointed" that Bolt had false-started, then pointed out that the rule in question could be changed at any time. As of Monday night in Daegu no action had been taken, but the possibility alone demonstrated Bolt's significance to the sport.
The false-start rule was initially altered at the behest of broadcasters who disliked being at the mercy of delays that resulted from multiple false starts in sprints and hurdles. The 2003 rule was a modification of a rule that allowed every starter a single false start. There was wisdom in the '03 change, but it's perilous—borderline foolish—to continue doing business with a rule that could result in losing the sport's only crossover attraction before he gets a chance to perform.
The Daegu situation was further complicated when media—led by the U.S. running website letsrun.com—analyzed Bolt's false start and concluded that Blake actually flinched very slightly just before Bolt did. "They could have thrown him out too," says NBC analyst and four-time Olympic sprint medalist Ato Boldon. It is unclear whether Bolt's jump (remember, he wasn't saying) was in reaction to Blake's flinch, but Bolt's best performances have begun with explosive starts that seem impossible for such a tall man. As long as he attacks starts with such abandon, and as long as the rule exists, Bolt will flirt with it.
His removal from the 100 meters also left his fitness an intriguing unknown. "I think he was going to run in the 60s," says Bolt's longtime coach, Glen Mills, meaning the 9.60s, which only Bolt and Gay have ever done. In Bolt's formal statement he said only that he was ready to run fast.
In a way Bolt's dismissal and the attendant controversies served to temporarily transform him: Instead of the unbeatable headliner, he became the wronged man, seeking retribution. "He'll probably run 18-something in the 200," says 2000 Olympic 100-meter gold medalist Maurice Greene. He was exaggerating for effect but revealed the fundamental truth of track and field: Under any circumstances, it's all about Bolt.
WHERE TO NOW?
THE QB SHUFFLE
Three subplots from the first half of the world championships:
• Allyson Felix
The three-time world 200-meter champion and two-time Olympic silver medalist chose to test herself with a 200-400 double. She took silver in the 400 and now faces 100-meter winner Carmelita Jeter and Jamaica's Veronica Campbell-Brown in the deuce. A gold shutout is possible.
• U.S. decathlon dominance
American Trey Hardee, 27, defended his title from 2009, and Ashton Eaton, 23, took the silver with a gutty 1,500 meters. Waiting in the wings is injured veteran Bryan Clay, 31, the '08 Olympic champ, raising the possibility of a U.S. sweep in London.
• Brittney Reese
A former hoops player from Gulfport, Miss., Reese (below) didn't start long-jumpig until she was a high school junior. Now she has back-to-back world titles and is the London favorite.
With their dazzling gold medal runs, sprinter Carmelita Jeter and hurdler Jason Richardson added luster to their mentor John Smith's coaching legacy
It was a scene that re-created recent track and field history. A newly minted world champion sprinter walked into the bowels of a stadium late Monday night in Daegu and embraced the coach who helped make the win possible, dissolving into tears in the coach's arms. Fourteen years ago the place was Athens, and the sprinter was a kid from Kansas City, Kans., named Maurice Greene, who had driven to Los Angeles and asked the coach to make him fast. That night in 1997 he won the first of his three world 100-meter titles. Greene sat down on a concrete curb and wept while the coach patted his back as if calming his own child.
On Monday night the sprinter was Carmelita Jeter, who at age 31 edged Veronica Campbell-Brown of Jamaica in 10.90 seconds to become the oldest 100-meter gold medalist in world championship history. "My coach told me I've worked too hard to throw it away," Jeter says, "that I'm a warrior and I've got to go out there and fight for it."
They are two champions, multiple athletic generations apart but with the same coach: John Smith, 61, known in the sport as a gifted trainer and a trackside philosopher. He has trained gold medalists dating back to Kevin Young (400-meter hurdles) and Quincy Watts (400 meters) at the 1992 Olympics, and the steroid suspensions of several of his athletes have left the stain of controversy. "I've been at the track coaching athletes with the FBI watching me," Smith said on Monday. "I've been through a lot. This is a good night."
Jeter is in position to become the first woman to double in the 100 and 200 meters since Katrin Krabbe of Germany in 1991. (Kelli White of the U.S. doubled in 2003 but was disqualified after testing positive for a banned substance.) To complete the double in Friday's final, Jeter will have to take down three-time champion Allyson Felix of the U.S., who finished second to Amantle Montsho of Botswana in a thrilling 400-meter final on Monday night.
Smith's night, in fact, was doubly good. Not only did Jeter win the 100, but also, 20 minutes earlier, Smith-trained Jason Richardson won the 110-meter hurdles. Richardson was second across the finish line but was elevated to first when winner Dayron Robles of Cuba (the world-record holder) was disqualified for interfering with third-place Liu Xiang of China (the '04 Olympic champion).
Richardson, 25, had been the top hurdling recruit in the country, out of Cedar Hill, Texas, in '05, but he struggled to fulfill that potential during his college career at South Carolina. In the spring of 2010, like Greene years before, he moved cross-country to California to train with Smith and has since taken the leap. "The difference," Richardson said, "is working with a world-class coach."
ERY VON DER LAAGE (BOLT)
EMPTY HANDED Thanks to a flawed rule, Bolt, who was favored in the 100, sat out the race in disbelief while countryman Blake (right) took the title.
BILL FRAKES (BLAKE)
[See caption above]
BOB MARTIN (REESE)
STEPPING UP TO THE GOLD World-record holder Robles (second from left) was first across the line but DQ'd, giving the win to Richardson (right).