Usain Bolt’s dream of claiming an unprecedented ‘triple-triple’ of sprint titles in Rio was still alive after he stormed to 100 metres victory in 9.81 seconds on Sunday night, beating America’s Justin Gatlin into second.
In a repeat of the result at last year’s World Championships Bolt got a predictably terrible start but came from behind to overhaul drugs cheat Gatlin, who clocked 9.89, in the dying metres. Canada’s Andre de Grasse clinched the bronze medal in a personal best 9.91.
Bolt entered the arena with his arms outstretched like the saviour of the sport many believe him to be and raised his finger to his mouth to silence the crowd at the start.
He has not lost an Olympic race since 2008 and later this week will go for glory again in the 200m and 4 x 100m. If he can achieve that unmatched he would fly back to Jamaica two days before his 30th birthday with a total of nine Olympic gold medals in his possession.
Ever the entertainer, he put on a yellow Jamaica baseball cap to do his lap of honour, embracing delighted members of the crowd and posing for selfies.
Bolt’s previous best time was 9.88 and he had been forced to withdraw from the Jamaican national championships with injury whereas Gatlin arrived in Rio having run the quickest time in the world this year, a 9.80 dash at the USA trials in Eugene. The stage had been set for a nightmare scenario to unfold.
It is perhaps over-simplistic to claim that this was a race of good against evil but there was no question over the result wanted by the custodians of a sport which has suffered brutal and repeated blows to its credibility over the last year.
Controversy is a constant bed- fellow for Gatlin but it has intensified during this Olympics with even his compatriots arguing that he has no right to be in Rio. The gold medal-winning swimmer Lilly King was asked about his inclusion in the USA delegation and replied: ‘Do I think someone who has been caught for doping should be on the team? No, I don’t.’
With the Joao Havelange Stadium the busiest it has been all week yet still not completely full, a giant roar greeted the first sight of Bolt coming on to the track for the semi-final to the flashes of thousands of smartphone cameras.
The crowd chanted his name in unison even before his first act of the evening. A police helicopter hovered above and there was a nervous moment as Bahrain’s Andrew Fisher was disqualified for a false start.
The Jamaican retained his composure and jogged to victory in 9.86, a hundredth of a second quicker than he ran in the semi-final at London 2012. Canada’s Andre De Grasse, who shared a bronze medal in the 100m final at the World Championships in Beijing last summer, was the next fastest qualifier in 9.92.
Bolt told the BBC: ‘I’m really happy but I expected to go faster. I’m just happy that I won and that’s the key thing.
‘After the semi-final I felt extremely good. I wanted to run faster but with the turnaround time, we normally have two hours, but we had one hour 20 minutes, it was challenging.
‘This is what we train for. I told you guys I was going to do it. Stay tuned, two more to go.’
Gatlin claims he does not hear boos but he would have done well to ignore the chorus of them as his name was read out by the stadium announcer. Nevertheless he breezed into the final, easing down to victory in 9.95, disappearing down the tunnel afterwards faster than you can say ‘drugs cheat’.
Britain’s two fastest men this year — Richard Kilty and Joel Fearon —did not make the Olympic team, their best times recorded after the selection cut-off point. In their absence, CJ Ujah, drawn in the same heat as Bolt, had a fiendishly difficult task. He ran a creditable 10.01 to finish fourth but missed out on a place in the final by the thickness of his vest to America’s Trayvon Brommel. Britain’s other representative in the semi-final, James Dasaolu also crashed out, finishing sixth in 10.16.