Sports Grand Prix Top AthletesAmerican Justin Gatlin is the fastest man in the world today, but can he beat the speed of a ball in freefall that accelerates at 9.81 meters per second squared in the Shotgun Touch competition?

Russian Denis Ablyazin won the silver medal in the men’s vault at the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics, but can he win the “Monster Box” competition, hurdling a vault over 3 meters high?

New Zealander Tomas Walsh won the bronze medal in the men’s shot put at the Rio Games, but can he defeat All Blacks rugby player and fellow New Zealander, Nepo Laulala, in the excruciating “Power Wall” contest?

If you’re a big fan of Ninja Warrior, you know the incredible obstacle course is based on a Japanese television program called Sasuke, produced by Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS). The same network, TBS, also produces a program called Sports Grand Prix Top Athletes which puts athletes to the test in creative competition.

And being an Olympian does not put you to the front of the class. Ablyazin made it look easy vaulting a horse built up some 2.5 meters high. But near the 3-meter mark, he faltered and lost to a Japanese trampoline competitor. Walsh also made it look easy pushing a movable wall against other competitors who sought to push the wall back, an event that is akin to a reverse tug of war.

But one would have thought that racing a falling ball to a spot requires pure speed, and that the fastest man in the world should win hands down. The “Shotgun Touch” competition requires a runner to touch a button which releases a ball from the ceiling (an unknown number of meters above the ground). The object is for the runner to get any part of their body, usually hands and fingers, on the ball before it touches the ground.

For competitors like track stars Kenji Fujimitsu and Gatlin, as well as Kansas City Royal Whit Merrifield, or J-League soccer star, Kensuke Nagai, getting to the ball 12 meters away was not so difficult, but another 50 to 100 centimeters, and the ball can seem to be accelerating faster than the law of physics. In some of the early attempts around 12 meters, Gatlin made it look easy with the ball hitting him in the back or his arms.

And yet, he actually missed at 12.60 meters and twice at 13 meters, disqualifying him from the rest of the competition. As he learned, diving technique is as important as speed. There’s no way Merrifield would beat Gatlin in a 100-meter sprint, and yet he was able to succeed at 13 meters. In the end, it was J-League soccer star Nagai who triumphed the shotgun touch competition.

Kinda silly, kinda fun…that’s how I spent my New Year’s evening.

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.

Schippers Thompson Fraser-Pryce Gardner
Clockwise: Schippers, Thompson, Gardner, Fraser-Pryce

The crowns of the fastest men and women in the world reside in the Caribbean island of Jamaica. Both Sherry-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Usain Bolt have won gold in the premier track and field event, the 100-meter dash, at the past two Olympics in London and Beijing.

For Fraser-Pryce, winning gold in the 100-meters at the Rio Olympics will not be easy. Her fastest time in 2016 or 10.93 merits tenth best for the season, a few big competitors with faster times.

Dafne Schippers, 24, won gold in the 200 meters at the world championships, and silver in the 100 meters last year. But in quick succession, the Dutch sprinter has won gold in the 100 meters at the European Championships in Amsterdam as well as the Diamond League championship in Monaco on July 15. However, two huge rivals did not compete at that event, Elaine Thompson, 24, of Jamaica and English Gardner, 24, of the USA, owners of the two fastest times in 2016.

gatlin bolt
Gatlin and Bolt

As for the men, the chief competitor to Usain Bolt is American Justin Gatlin, the much maligned sprinter who won gold in the 2004 Athens Games, but missed the Beijing Olympics in 2008 while serving his second ban for use of illegal performance-enhancing drugs. He returned to the tour in time to place third at the London Games, and has recently won the US Olympic Trials in the 100-meters, sending him to Rio as the oldest sprinter ever to make a US team.

In 2016, Gatlin holds the fastest time in the 100 meters at 9.80. Usain Bolt has been cautious, holding himself back from competing, particularly as he had recently suffered a hamstring injury. But his fastest time this year is 9.88, and clearly Bolt rises to the occasion. Just recently Bolt demonstrated that the injury is not an issue by dominating in the 200-meters championships at the London Anniversary Games on July 22.

Will Jamaicans Bolt and Fraser-Pryce repeat as the first three-time gold medalists in the 100-meters, or will time catch up with them?

Can’t wait to find out.

Jason GatlinWhen Justin Gatlin lost to Usain Bolt in the 100-meter finals at the IAAF Track and Field Championships, the twitterverse was definitely rooting for Bolt to retain his championship. Gatlin’s history with doping turned this match into a morality play – Unblemished Bolt vs. Tainted Gatlin.

There were some who came to Gatlin’s defense – he tested positive for a banned substance in 2001, was subsequently banned for competition for two years, which was later reduced to one year. In other words, he served time for the crime, as it were.

What I learned recently is how aggressive drug testing is today. According to this article by Nick Zaccardi, who writes a blog on the Olympics for NBC, Gatlin has already been tested 62 times in 2015 – that’s once every four days!

On the surface, I agree with his agent, Renaldo Nehemiah, that “It’s ridiculous.” But then again, it’s a high-stakes world where considerable amounts of money is poured into finding the edge that brings the slimmest of improvements in competitive sports.

Gatlin’s not alone. In 2014 Gatlin was the second most tested track and field competitor, but Michael Phelps was tested even more.

Thus the cat and mouse game between chemists and regulators continues…. probably forever.