BEIJING (Reuters) - Usain Bolt swept aside a year of poor form and injury to retain his world 100 meters title in nail-biting fashion on Sunday and give his beleaguered sport the boost it so badly needed after three weeks of negative headlines.
The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) has been in crisis since the results of thousands of blood tests were leaked in early August, forcing it to defend the sport against allegations of widespread doping.
In that context, the blue riband sprint at the 15th world championships was variously cast as a morality play, a fight between good and evil and a nine-point-something seconds battle for the soul of the sport.
It pitched Bolt, whose status as a sporting icon was recently compared to that of the boxer Muhammad Ali by IAAF president-elect Seb Coe, against American Justin Gatlin, who has lost five years of his career to doping bans.
On Sunday, the Jamaican delivered victory in a time of 9.79 seconds that was far from his fastest but with a gutsy performance that will rank as one of his greatest.
Bolt had already rejected a role as the savior of his sport and he was no more inclined to accept the mantle after beating Gatlin into second place by one hundredth of a second.
”That’s for you guys to decide,“ the 29-year-old said. ”You guys are the ones that have been saying I need to save the sport so you have to write about that.
“For me I came here to add to my legendary status, to win and to continue my championship rights, so that’s the focus.”
The victory maintained an unbeaten run in major global sprints that goes back to his three gold medals in world record times on three humid nights in Beijing seven years ago.
While those victories were won by an athlete still discovering the limits of his talent, Sunday’s triumph at the same Bird’s Nest stadium was all about character.
Joint injuries had limited his season to a handful of runs and only in London at the end of July was he able to approach the kind of times he once ran as a matter of course.
A stumble at the start of Sunday’s semi-final might have been a crushing blow to the nerves of a less confident athlete but Bolt recovered to win his heat and then just beat Gatlin to the line in the final having trailed for most of the race.
“I’ve had a lot of doubters, it’s been a tough road,” said the Jamaican. “So for me to come to the championships and retain my title is a beautiful thing.”
Gatlin, the form sprinter of the year, was gracious in defeat after his first loss in a 100 meters since 2013, blaming an early lurch for the line.
“I gave the race away in the last five meters,” said the 33-year-old, one of four sprinters in the final who have served doping bans.
“I had the momentum to lean forward but stumbled a little bit. Win or lose, I was happy to be in a race against a great guy.”
A no less impressive victory for a 29-year-old came in the heptathlon where Britain’s Olympic champion Jessica Ennis-Hill regained the world title after what she described as her “hardest year ever”.
Thirteen months on from becoming a mother and a few months after returning to the track, Ennis-Hill took an 86-point lead into the 800 meters and cruised past pre-championship favorite Brianne Theisen-Eaton to clinch the title with 6,669 points.
Theisen-Eaton won silver, helped by the fact that another Briton, Katarina Johnson-Thompson, scored zero points in the long jump. The British team initially appealed her third foul jump but withdrew the protest after looking at the evidence.
There were no appeals available for Botswana’s 800 meters favorite Nijel Amos, however, when he fell victim to a tactical battle in the semi-finals and failed to qualify for the final.
There were gold medals for the big men of the field on Sunday with Pole Pawel Fajdek retaining his hammer title, while American Joe Kovacs denied defending champion David Storl of Germany a hat-trick of titles in the shot.
The locals were left disappointed after the first event of the day when China’s Wang Zhen was hauled in by Miguel Angel Lopez in the 20km walk.
The Spaniard took the applause of the crowd when he crossed the line for gold in a time of one hour 19 minutes 14 seconds, 15 seconds ahead of the Chinese.
A little over 11 hours later and a packed Bird’s Nest was on its feet in raptures at the greatest sprinter of the era.
“I really love this stadium,” said Bolt.
Reporting by Nick Mulvenney, editing by Ken Ferris