IN GOOD CONSCIENCE

Russia's athletics ban is no Bolt from the blue

The Saviour is back in town.

Usain Bolt was due to run the 200 metres at the Olympic stadium in London just before 10pm last night - or two hours or so before dawn in Singapore.

The weather and even the humidity in England has recently been unusually on a par with Singapore measurements too, so all things point to a fast time by the fastest human on earth.

Why am I not excited?

Because athletics, and most Olympic sports, are as close to the edge of disbelief as we have known.

Deception is big, big business. The crime today isn't so much popping pills or taking injections. The crime is getting caught doing it.

When Bolt breezed into London to publicise his now rare appearances following a hamstring injury, he arrived a quarter of an hour late for his media conference.

"Sorry guys and girls," he said. He got delayed by dope testers turning up at his hotel, wanting a sample of his blood.

Whatever else Bolt intended to say, the reporters wanted one thing: His view on the announcement less than an hour earlier that the Court of Arbitration for Sport had upheld a ban on the entire Russian athletics team from the Rio Olympics.

"This will scare a lot of people," said the great man. "Because doping violations in track and field are getting really bad."

Pressed to say more, the Jamaican commented: "I prefer to leave it to the big guys. It's just a sideshow, I focus on winning."

And then he was back on comfortable ground, assessing the upcoming Games. "This is my final Olympics, and it's a big one," he said in that lyrical, Caribbean manner of speaking. "Trying to break the 200m world record is what I'm focused on."

His real focus, he has been saying for some weeks now, is to be the Muhammad Ali, Pele or Michael Jordan of athletics.

By his own reckoning, he is two-thirds of the way there. Already the double Olympic speed champion of the last two Games, and also a winner in the 4x100m relay at both Beijing and London, he is after the unprecedented "triple triple"?down in Rio.

The blot on Bolt's horizon is that the 4x100m gold won at Beijing in 2008 is likely to be annulled after his fellow Jamaican Nesta Carter was found, retrospectively, to have failed a dope test taken and stored after that performance.

"What can I do?" Bolt replied to the London media. "Rules are rules. But everybody knows it's going to still stand because I've shown over the years that I'm the greatest athlete and that's the key thing."

Sorry, Usain.

The key is being seen to be clean. And with all this retrospective examination of samples stored in laboratories, and all the whistle-blowers out there (currently Russian defectors), who know whether what appeared clean yesterday might be exposed as dirty tomorrow.

Bolt is himself from a nation where drug testing has been less than trustworthy.

Richard McLaren, the Canadian lawyer who presided over the latest expose on Russian doping is, like the founding lawyer of the World Anti-Doping Agency, from the nation where Ben Johnson so publicly failed a test at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul.

And the West now piling in on Russia's shame has a litany of named, shamed and restored heroes right across the gamut of sports.

Even so, because the whistle-blower on the systemic state cheating in Sochi and Moscow sought asylum in the US, the long finger points across the ideological divide.

Doping has, again, become a cold war, issue.

It has been for most of our lifetime. Communist East Germany, or to some, the German Democratic Republic (GDR) was either the most remarkable small-state phenomenon of sports across the board from the mid-1960s - or as later proven, the most repulsive state-sponsored ruination of childhood through drugging kids the world has seen.

How a nation of 16 million could beat the rest so consistently across so many sporting disciplines was suspect at the time, and proven once the infamous Stasi police files were opened after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

So if Russia, with a population of 145 million, is now the new GDR in terms of mass doping, is anyone surprised?

The accusation is that the state deems it desirable to bask in the glory of medal winners, regardless of the harm inflicted upon the physique of not simply the golden athletes, but the thousands cast aside on the push up the ladder to fame.

But at the time of the GDR, my question was if the state-push was any worse than the parental-push of children in the West?

And today, with coaches seeking reflected glory (and the dollars) and with multinational companies backing the programmes that produce winners, deception is big, big business.

The crime today isn't so much popping pills or taking injections. The crime is getting caught doing it.

A secondary lament might be to blanket an entire nation, denying any clean as well as presumed guilty athletes the privilege enshrined in Olympicism - "the taking part".

One of Russia's best known heroines (we need to take care in how we spell that!) is Yelena Isinbayeva. The pole vaulter described the ruling against Russia as the "funeral" of track and field.

"Let all these pseudo-clean foreign athletes breathe a sigh of relief and win their pseudo-gold medals without us," she said. "They've always been frightened of our strength."

The accusations against Russia, if proven, warrant exclusion. My unease is that those driving the investigations, and the courts, are predominantly from an opposing ideology.

And not necessarily a clean one when it comes to performance-enhancing drugs.

Usain Bolt is the champion of the clean athletes. But the next five fastest sprinters in history have all failed dope tests - Justin Gatlin more than once.

They are in order of quickness: Tyson Gay (US), Yohan Blake (Jamaica), Asafa Powell (Jamaica), Gatlin (US) and Carter.

The world's fastest female, America's Florence Griffith Joyner, triple gold medallist in Seoul, never tested positive for any prohibited substance.

But Flo-Jo died in her sleep in 1998. The cause of death was never established, or never publicly explained.

She was 38 years young.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 23, 2016, with the headline 'Russia's athletics ban is no Bolt from the blue'. Print Edition | Subscribe