Rio de Janeiro: The question hits Michael Johnson like a stiff breeze, rippling his features. Not for the first or last time in this interview, he frowns.
The question is this: is Usain Bolt clean? The greatest 400-metre runner of all time shuffles a little in his seat. He knew that doping would be on the agenda. He knows that no stone must be left unturned when it comes to preserving the honour of the sport he loves. But he also knows that any event where excellence is suspicious in itself is not much of an event at all.
“I haven’t heard anything,” he says, with a glassy note in his voice. “You go out there, you run the races, you take the tests, and I don’t think there’s anything else that he can do. Unfortunately clean athletes have to deal with these sorts of questions. And it’s not their fault. It’s the fault of the sport.”
To date, 32 athletes have been sanctioned for doping at London 2012. The fear is that Rio will go the same way. That there are still too many people with a vested interest in facilitating cheating. And so the reason for asking about Bolt is that it strikes at the heart of the crisis engulfing athletics at the moment: can we trust anything we see?
“It’s very difficult to know,” Johnson says. “It would just be a complete guess, based on no sort of data. The state of athletics is pretty dire. Obviously credibility has been hit quite hard, and I think the sport has to go out and get answers.”
It is why Johnson rejects the simple idea that one man, even one as brilliant as Bolt, can save the sport on his own. That was the prevailing mood at least year’s World Championships in Beijing, when Bolt beat the tainted Justin Gatlin to the gold medal. And although not excusing Gatlin for his doping past, Johnson feels the fixation on painting him as a villain was ultimately self-defeating. “I don’t think the media did a very good job from that standpoint,” he says.
“What was lost was a fantastic build-up to the race. But we weren’t talking about that. We were talking about good versus evil. We were building up this narrative that Justin Gatlin represents everything that’s wrong with the sport.
“Not to defend what he did, but Gatlin doesn’t make the rules. People like simple narratives: good versus evil. And in terms of Bolt, I don’t think it’s fair to put that sort of pressure on him.”
Yet Johnson does think Bolt will prevail. A conversation between the pair at the Anniversary Games in London a fortnight ago convinced him that the hamstring tear that forced him to miss the Jamaican trials last month was minor. “As long as he’s healthy, I don’t think anyone can beat him,” he says. “I think he’s in better shape than at this point last year.”
That athlete’s sensibility has never left him, even if he has now been to more Olympics as a broadcaster (four) than as an athlete (three). Johnson has taken to the microphone as effortlessly as he took to the track, establishing himself as one of the best analysts in any sport. Yet it is rarely as easy as he makes it look.
Five years ago, when Channel Four won the rights to host the world championships in Daegu, a bemused-looking Johnson shared a studio with the hapless children’s TV presenter Ortis Deley, whose garbled links and frequent mistakes turned him into a fleeting YouTube sensation. Neither Deley nor Channel Four were seen near an athletics track again, but Johnson leaps to the defence of his former colleague. “You know, I don’t think it was 100 per cent his fault,” Johnson says.
“At the BBC we have a great group who have worked together for many years. So when someone else tries to duplicate that, it’s very difficult. There’s a good chance that Ortis and the producers may have underestimated just how difficult live athletics is.”
Johnson will always continue to fight for athletics. And for all the general pallor of gloom surrounding these Olympics, he is confident that the sporting spectacle will triumph in the end. “The men’s 400m will be very close,” he enthuses when asked what else he is most looking forward to. “The women’s 100m hurdles will be a fantastic race. I’m looking forward to seeing Ashton Eaton in the men’s decathlon. It’s the Olympics. Everything is good at the Olympics!”
And as the frown finally melts into a broad smile, you want to believe him.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2016