So, four days after Usain Bolt evidently saved athletics, comes the very real possibility of Justin Gatlin doing the alternative. That's not saying the sport hasn't been busy dying a little more in the meantime.
Before the characters and plot were put back in place for Good v Evil: Episode II – as in Bolt v Gatlin in the 200 metres final – day five at the World Athletics Championships in Beijing dawned under that still-thick cloud of doping. The fact it was two relatively unknown Kenyan athletes who tested positive in no way lessened the sense of darkness surrounding that particular nation.
That day five then ended with Kenya pulling further ahead at the top of the medal table certainly didn’t lessen it either: they’ve now won 11 medals in all (six gold, three silver and two bronze), far more than the likes of Great Britain, Jamaica and the USA. Kenya’s medal tally would actually be higher had any of their red-hot favourites delivered a medal in the men’s marathon.
Russia, meanwhile, who had also come to Beijing under the same cloud, and who topped the medal table in Moscow two years ago, have fallen inconceivably far off the charts, lying a lowly 17th, with just a single silver medal from the men’s 400m hurdles. Although in ways that’s lifted some of the darkness surrounding that particular nation.
Still, it seems there’s just no escaping the needle and the damage done. Now, Bolt and Gatlin will go at each other in that quite ludicrous second billing of good versus evil. There are far worse villains in sport than Gatlin, and the sport won’t live or die by whoever wins, although like Sunday’s 100m final – which Bolt won by 0.01 of a second – today’s 200m final (1.55pm Irish time) will add up to so much more than the sum of its parts.
Both men qualified with equal composure in what were actually the most competitive 200m semi-finals in World Championship history. Previously, the fastest time never to make a 200m final was 20.25; here, 12 men ran faster than that, when of course only eight could make the final.
Anyway, Gatlin was quickest of the lot – winning his semi-final in 19.87 seconds, easing up. The American has also run the fastest time in the world this year, 19.57, although at age 33, and with that four-year lay-off due to a second doping offence, there is still some doubt as to whether Gatlin can put three races back-to-back (his older legs certainly seemed to catch up with him in the third race over 100m). Still, Gatlin is unbeaten in the 200m since 2013, and there’s no denying he’ll have further motivation after coming so close in the 100m.
The problem for Gatlin is Bolt looked equally smooth, winning his semi-final in 19.95, a season best, also easing up, and actually the first time he’s run faster than 20 seconds in a championship semi-final.
“I’m feeling a bit tired, as expected,” said Bolt, who is chasing a fourth successive 200m title. “I’m just trying to get as much rest as possible and trying to get through these rounds. Right now I’m feeling okay. I didn’t run a hard corner. I ran maybe 90 per cent. For me, my 200 is my best event. I live for this, so I’m looking forward to it. I know I’m going to do well.”
As in the 100m, Bolt will need to run 100 per cent to beat Gatlin, and if he’s still within striking distance in the last 20m there can only be one winner. Gatlin’s best chance is to use his better start and greater acceleration around the bend to open sufficient daylight on the big Jamaican so that he can’t recover. As in the 100m final, the athletes will be separated by a lane, with the three semi-final winners – Gatlin, Britain’s Zharnel Hughes and Bolt – drawn in lanes four, five and six respectively. Given his size, that outside lane may actually give Bolt the extra little advantage to win.
Like almost every track final in Beijing it will be lightning fast. The men’s 400m final presented further evidence of that, when Wayde van Niekerk took nearly half a second off the South African record to win gold 43.48, leading three men under 44 seconds for the first time.
Defending champion LeShawn Merritt from the USA also ran a lifetime best of 43.65 to win silver, with Olympic champion Kirani James from Grenada finishing third in 43.78. In fourth, Luguelin Santos also ran a Dominican record of 44.11 – while van Niekerk’s 43.48 now makes him the fourth fastest 400m man in history.
However, two other gold medals won inside the Bird's Nest – Kenya's Julius Yego in the javelin, with an unbelievable throw of 92.72 metres, and compatriot Hyvin Jepkemoi in the women's 3,000m steeplechase – were inevitably overshadowed by the announcement earlier in the day that two Kenya athletes – Joyce Zakary and Koki Manunga – had tested positive after IAAF target-testing at the team hotel late last week.
Both athletes have accepted their provisional suspensions.
Yet perhaps the most damning evidence of doping in athletics revealed by German broadcaster ARD and The Sunday Times newspaper three weeks ago was the secretly filmed footage of so-called Kenyan doctors openly providing EPO and other illegal substances to local athletes.
And when Hajo Seppelt, the German documentary maker, knocked on the gates of the Kenyan Athletics Federation requesting an interview, he found those gates locked. Now, and as a matter of urgency, the IAAF need to get Seb Coe down to Kenya, unlock those gates, and find out exactly what's going on. That would be one way to help save the sport.