After Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt finished winning gold medals in the London Olympics 100 meters, 200 meters and 4 X 100 meter relay races, he was asked by an NBC sports announcer to characterize the merit of his accomplishments.
Bolt’s reply: “I’m a Legend.”
We’ll resist the immediate temptation to dissect that possible Freudian slip given how many sprinters have won world championships only to test positive for steroids or other performance-enhancing drugs later on. Those athletes are stripped of their titles. Banned from the sport for years. Their legends become legendary in an entirely different way.
Some return to race again. Others never do. Consider that there was at least one reformed US doper, Justin Gatlin, competing in the Olympic races against Usain Bolt.
The claim to legendary status
At face value, Bolt’s claim to being a legendary figure in track and field is hard to argue. After all, he won the same trio of races in the Beijing Olympics, setting world records at 100 and 200 meters, giving him 6 gold medals total in two consecutive Olympic Games. With the 4 X 100 world record he helped set at this year’s games, Bolt is basically 3 for 3 in his attempts at breaking world records in his events at the Olympics. That is pretty legendary stuff.
But consider: Bolt’s reputation was at risk prior to the Olympics when he lost both the 100 and 200 to Jamaican teammate and training partner Johan Blake, who is no sprinting slouch himself. Bolt finished second to Blake in both qualifying races. In those races Bolt looked human to say the least. Some proceeded to question Bolt’s fitness for the 2012 London Games, but were perhaps only a little surprised at the pursuant quality of his performances. Again Bolt left some of the world’s best sprinters in his wake.
In post-race interviews, Bolt said his Jamaican trials experience was a “wakeup call.” Hmmm.
But now he’s a Legend. At least that’s what Bolt labels himself. His size and stride and demeanor of joyous dominance is certainly legendary. So for now the claim follows him around like a shadow that has to move fast and possibly jump high to keep up. Bolt is considering competing in the long jump in the Olympic Games in Brazil in 2016. His coach wants him to run the 400 meters. Which would make him more of a legend? Let the debate begin.
The jury is always out
For now, those of us who’ve followed track and field for many years have learned to be suspicious of all such claims to legend. Too many times, the accomplishments of some the greatest athletes have come tumbling down. We recall Canada’s Ben Johnson, the seemingly indomitable sprinter who got busted for steroids.
Too often we’ve been wowed by amazing sprint times only to learn that the athlete had been using performance-enhancing drugs. Even Olympic great Carl Lewis was not entirely able to escape speculation about possible steroid use, even to the point where people compared photos of his face over the length of his career to study his jawbone structure and other physical features that would indicate possible steroid use. The mantle of a legend is hard to wear with peace and ease.
Bolt’s jolt of improvement from the Jamaican trials to the Olympics did raise some eyebrows. If it were to be discovered that he has been using steroids or other “juice” to improve his speed he would quickly become a legend of another sort. There are literally dozens of athletes out there who rose to the top of their sport with amazing skill, speed and courage, only to be exposed as a fraud when the results of a doping test show them to be merely human with some big-time help.
Compared to other legends
In that regard, Usain Bolt may be uniquely connected to another big-time athlete with an outsized reputation and a transcendent demeanor. That would be Lance Armstrong, the world’s best cyclist who won 7 consecutive overall races at the Tour de France.
The oft-repeated tale—by Armstrong himself—is that he has never been caught using drugs. But the ugly specter of potential teammate testimony against his legendary accomplishments has put Armstrong in a tough position recently. No absolute evidence has been submitted against his legend, but in the absence of that, sometimes testimony by others will do. If he were to protest the research and findings of the USADA, the anti-doping agency of the United States, all the testimony they’ve lined up would come rolling out. That might impact the other facet of Armstrong’s legend.
The Livestrong legend
Armstrong’s legendary accomplishments happen to extend beyond the world of sports. He has leveraged his Livestrong brand into a world of good for people with cancer. Armstrong at this point in his career is essentially sacrificing one facet of his legend to protect the other. A possibly noble act, in a way, for a man regularly accused of some selfish instincts and behavior. Or else he actually is being selfish. It is sometimes hard to tell with legends. Look at Usain Bolt: is he bragging himself up or simply planting an idea with fans who adore him?
Those who chose to sustain the Armstrong legend in either cycling terms or Livestrong will likely find themselves stifling their own questions about what is more important in the case of a man like Lance Armstrong, truth or legend?
If you choose truth, then the legend may be sacrificed. But if you choose legend, then the truth perhaps must be ignored. It’s a complicated scenario, especially for those whose inspiration has been distilled to the simple symbol of a small yellow wristband. That small token represents a legend, and what it really means to try to give back to the world.
Someone’s always trying to take you down.
Putting legend in context. Not all good.
But if Bolt were found to be a doper and Armstrong’s legend were to collapse under further scrutiny of his use of performance-enhancing drugs, would either man be a bigger liar than most politicians and their parties? Over the last 50 years we’ve seen presidents with sterling political skills fall prey to very human foibles. John F. Kennedy and his dalliances. LBJ to his possibly murderous desire for power. Nixon with his Watergate. Reagan and Iran-Contra. Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica. George W. Bush’s illegal wars and torture and lost billions.
All Presidents become legends, of a sort. And the harm they do in a legendary way can cost millions of people their lives. It should make us take a step back to consider just was the term legend means. Is it the truth, or what we choose to believe about another human being that matters?
Seems we’re making choices like that all the time.