Usain Bolt: Lead Actor in a Morality Play

Lilly King and Yulia Efimova
Lilly King and Yulia Efimova in the aftermath of the 100-meter breaststroke finals

It’s as if people are wearing black hats or white hats. People boo when the black hats slunk onto the stage, and cheer when the white hats make their grand appearance.

In a world of gray – the state of doping in international sport competition – the Rio Olympics is turning into a morality play, where Russians in particular are playing the role of villain. Thanks to the IOC decision to allow individual sports federations to determine whether Russian athletes can participate in the Rio Olympics, some 270 Russians came to Rio, albeit under a moist, dark cloud of suspicion.

Those who are claiming the higher ground – the cleans – have been emboldened by the IOC decision to spit out their lines in contempt. Lilly King of America has made it no secret that her rival in the pool, Yulia Efimova of Russia, who was suspended for doping after winning medals at the London Games, should not be at the Rio Games. In reference to Efimova’s raising her index finger after winning a preliminary race in the 100-meter breaststroke, King said “You wave your finger No. 1, and you’ve been caught drug cheating? I’m not a fan.” King touched the wall a fraction of a second earlier than Efimova to win gold.

Australian swimmer, Mack Horton, said of his rival from China, Sun Yang, “I don’t have time or respect for drug cheats.” That prompted a social media war as Chinese fans dropped virtual vitriol on Horton, who pipped Sun to take gold in the 400-meter freestyle. “We probably just need to apologize to every Horton who has a name like Mack – because they have really copped a fair shellacking over the last couple of days,” said Mack Horton’s father, Andrew.

It’s clearly not just swimming, and it’s not just Russia and China against the rest of the world. King said that Justin Gatlin, gold medalist in the 100 meters should not be in Rio. Gatlin, who won gold at the 2004 Athens Games, was not only caught doping and suspended before the Athens Games, but also afterwards. While the 34-year-old American has a chance to claim gold again, Gatlin is definitely viewed as tainted.

Usain Bolt and the Holy Redeemer
Usain Bolt and the Holy Redeemer

Athletes are loudly expressing dislike, even disgust for “cheaters”. The crowd rain boos on the black hats. And to be realistic, the average sports fan is fatigued by the constant reminder that athletes are cheating. On Saturday, August 13, the morality play will likely reach its climax. On to the biggest stage will step Usain Bolt, arguably the most popular athlete in Rio. Bolt is universally loved for his friendliness, his love for fun and his sublime speed. Bolt is hoping to become the first ever to be crowned the fastest man in the world three Olympics in a row.

But perhaps a somewhat less obvious reason people root for Bolt is the belief that he runs clean and wins. Bolt is a symbol for the high performance and armchair athlete alike – a dragon slayer, a shining savior.

Adding to his favored status, Bolt addresses that responsibility with humility. Here’s how he responded to a question at the London Diamond Games in July, 2015 about his role as “savior”:

A lot of people have been saying that. But it’s not only me but all the athletes also. All the athletes have the right to try to help the sport, to keep the sport in a good light. I think it’s all of our responsibility. I just do my best. I try to run fast. I do it clean. I think that’s just what I have to do. I’m not going to say I’m the only savior of athletics. I just try to do my best and stay focused.

It’s complicated. Russian and Chinese athletes come from cultures where government are able to execute on top-down strategies and tactics more easily than more democratic societies. How much choice do the Suns and the Efimovas in their respective nations have in their athletic careers? As Romanian legend, Nadia Comaneci said in this New York Times video, “I don’t think the booing is really nice. Everybody is a human being in the end. I think you should respect them.”

Efimova is indeed a human being, and I hear her frustration, and I believe her pleas for understanding are heartfelt.

I have once when I made mistakes and I have been banned for 16 months. Like, I don’t know actually I need to explain everybody or not. I just like have some question. Like if WADA say, like, tomorrow, stop, like, yogurt or nicotine or, I don’t know protein, that every athlete use, and they say tomorrow now it’s on banned list. And you stop. But this is stay out of your body six months and doping control is coming, like, after two months, tested you and you’re positive. This is your fault?

Michael Johnson also defended those who served the time. As the 4-time gold medalist sprinter said in this AP article, “the athlete has been a villain and certainly has done damage to the sport. . . . I don’t appreciate that. But the athlete’s not the one that’s making the rules that allows him to get back on the track or back in the pool, or back on the field.”

But to most people, it is simple. If you’ve been caught cheating and suspended, you got to Rio by tilting the playing field in your favor.

Usain Bolt. Save us.