Bolt versus Gatlin: the classic tale of hero versus villain

Thursday 20 August 2015 by Darren Nash

9.58 seconds. That's how fast Usain Bolt ran 100 metres at the 2009 IAAF World Championships in Berlin. It’s a world record that still stands today. A lot has happened in athletics since then and this week sees the World Championships begin in Beijing – the same city that hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics.

Bolt will be at the World Championships once again. He’s expected to sail through the heats and contest the male 100-metre final on Sunday against seven fellow athletes, including US sprinter Justin Gatlin – a man who attracts similar global attention for very different reasons.

Bolt’s rise

Since securing his first major medal at the 2007 World Championships, taking silver in the 200-metre final, Bolt has taken track athletics to a new level. His talent, the likes of which spectators have never witnessed before, has seen him dominate the sport as the world’s fastest man over both 100- and 200-metre distances. He’s become the face of athletics. He's no longer “just” the best sprinter ever – he's a global icon whose name alone is worth paying the entrance fee for (I’ve done it myself). The man is a superstar of his generation. But when someone dominates for so long, we sometimes start to see the sensational as the ordinary and begin to take their performances for granted.

Mo Farah summed up Bolt’s significance in athletics at London's Anniversary Games last month: “It is important to have role models and he inspires me. Bolt is incredible and we take it for granted what he does – to come here year after year, to keep winning medals and stay motivated.”

Fans all over the world have taken Bolt to their hearts. Unlike other athletes who pace up and down the track before races, faces stern and focused on the job in hand, Bolt is joking around, playing to the crowd and performing his signature "Lightning Bolt" pose (which has now been turned into his own logo). A little more than nine seconds later, he's doing a lap of honour draped in the Jamaican flag and posing for fans in front of the cameras – and his audience can't get enough of him.

Building the brand

Bolt’s not just the flag bearer for athletics. His friendly, easygoing nature (which is sometimes misinterpreted as laziness) has made him a prime target for brands that clamber over one another to have him represent them. He’s built an impressive list of endorsements, most recently fronting Virgin Media's campaign “Broadbandits”. He’s a long-term ambassador for sports apparel firm Puma, and has become synonymous with the brand’s slogan "Forever Faster".

Puma Forever Faster advert

Lawrence has already talked about the benefits of sportspeople building strong personal brands. Track athletes rarely earn significant money on the field and Bolt’s off-track earnings are estimated to be $21 million – proving that his sporting achievements are only part of the brand puzzle. The way Bolt conducts himself on and off the track has shaped his personal brand and his almost “heroic” persona.

Every hero needs one

For every hero there is a villain. And Bolt is set to go up against the rogue of track athletics in Beijing, in what could be the closest and most unpredictable 100 metres for many a year.

The scoundrel of the piece comes in the form of 33 year-old Gatlin. As much as Bolt has worked hard to build the profile of athletics, Gatlin has brought it into disrepute – twice. Banned in 2001 for two years and again in 2006 for a further four due to doping (the ins and outs of the controversies can be found here), Gatlin has since returned and become the closest challenger to Bolt’s crown and world record time. The American is on a staggering 26-race unbeaten streak and also holds the fastest 100-metre time of this year, running 9.74 seconds in Doha in May. Suddenly Superman has a real enemy to deal with. Gatlin isn't shy either, throwing down the gauntlet recently by stating he could break Bolt’s record this year.

Gatlin is in the form of his life, but whichever way you look at it he will always be known as the two-time drug cheat. He recently signed a lucrative sponsorship deal with Nike, having been ditched by the brand following his doping convictions. The decision to bring Gatlin back on board provoked tremendous backlash from the public, columnists and athletics professionals past and present. In a recent interview, former British sprinter Darren Campbell explained that part of sponsorship deals is being an ambassador for the brand – and having Gatlin as the face of Nike simply doesn't work.

Nike’s decision to resume its relationship with Gatlin surprised many people, including me. The sports giant usually cuts ties with any athlete that brings its name into disrepute (see Lance Armstrong, Adrian Peterson and Oscar Pistorius). Even with immense race times and win after win, Gatlin’s public perception hasn't changed. After his 100 metre triumph in Monaco the BBC tweeted: "Justin Gatlin takes easy 100m win in Monaco", which also provoked an angry reaction on Twitter, with fans asking why the broadcaster was focusing on Gatlin and not Tirunesh Dibaba (who had just broken the world record in the 1,500 metres). The tweets poured in, all with one phrase in common: "drug cheat".

Athletics is currently taking a bit of a battering, with accusations of widespread doping rife. The 100-metre field in particular has taken a knock in the last few years. Athletes such as Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell have both recently served doping bans of their own. And Yohan Blake, the man who not so long ago most people thought would be the closest challenger to fellow Jamaican Bolt’s crown, has been hit with numerous injuries in the past two years. So we're left with these two competitors, who are polar opposites. This race in Beijing is surrounded by so much hype because it could produce one of the closest 100 metres in Bolt’s era.

In every great story, good (usually) triumphs – and I'm hoping for an epic ending in a few days' time.

Darren has left The Frameworks.


  • Persona building
  • Athletics
  • Usain Bolt