Absence of World’s Fastest Man will deprive Tokyo Olympics of sorely-needed star power


This is a column by Morgan Campbell, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

If you’ve never seen Christian Coleman run in person I feel sorry for you as a sports fan, because the man is an absolute wonder. I watched from the bleachers as he zoomed away from a world-class field in the early rounds of the men’s 60 metres at the IAAF World Indoor Championships, and sat near the finish line as he won the final in 6.37 incredible seconds.

That time was the second best ever, trailing only the 6.34 Coleman ran at U.S. nationals that year. Those numbers quantify what you see when you watch Coleman blast from the starting blocks and rocket down the track.

He’s faster than 5G wifi. Faster than money running through your chequing account.

He’s faster than any sprinter in the post-Usain Bolt era, and that’s not just my opinion. It’s a point of statistical fact. Last September he won a 100 metre word title in 9.76 seconds, the fastest time in the world since 2015.

WATCH | Christian Coleman runs 9.76 at 2019 World Championships:

Christian Coleman of the United States wins 100m with personal best 9.76 seconds, Andre De Grasse finishes 3rd while fellow Canadian Aaron Brown places 8th. 8:37

Coleman is so fast that the sport’s drug testers can’t keep up with him, and that’s the problem.

This month the Athletics Integrity Unit, which oversees doping control for World Athletics, suspended Coleman for two years after a string of missed out-of-competition drug tests. The ruling means the top performer in track and field’s highest-profile event will miss the Olympics — if they actually happen next summer in Tokyo. Unless Coleman’s last-ditch appeal succeeds, somebody besides the current World’s Fastest Man will win Olympic gold in 2021, and his suspension will leave a long list of losers.

Stench of a doping control violation

First is Coleman’s career, even though he has never tested positive, and even though the AIU’s report specifies that officials don’t suspect him of using performance-enhancing drugs. The stench of a doping control violation will still sour his reputation, and the two-year gap on his resume could prove costly for a sprinter at his level, where appearance fees grow with each Olympic and world championship medal, and where gold in Tokyo could have earned him untold endorsement cash.

But four whereabouts violations in a 12-month span hint that Coleman either doesn’t understand, or simply doesn’t care about the importance of routine paperwork.

In that sense the World’s Fastest Man is like many of us, too busy keeping pace with daily life to sign every paper and respond to every email. I’ve been paying accountants to prepare my taxes since before I could afford it, because even student loan-poor Morgan had less time than money. So if the time drain and tedium of constantly updating his location, just to facilitate unannounced drug tests, simply overwhelmed Coleman, I get it. I empathize. I’ve been there. The world’s fastest human is still human.

But those doping control location forms are just like tax returns, in that failing to keep them up to date will cost you in the long run. If I keep CRA waiting long enough, I’ll earn an audit. If you don’t answer the door when drug testers knock, as happened with Coleman in December, or if you’re in Iowa on a day you said you’d be in Kentucky, as happened last spring, you’re courting warnings and, eventually, suspensions.

And if you’re Coleman, your absence will deprive the sport of your sorely-needed star power.

De Grasse the new favourite?

In theory, a Coleman-free Tokyo Olympics elevates Markham’s Andre De Grasse to an early favourite. De Grasse, after all, won bronze at 2019 Worlds, finishing behind Coleman and Justin Gatlin, who will be 39 years old next summer.

But it’s still too early to handicap a competition that’s nine months away. In 2016, hardly anyone outside Coleman’s inner circle and a handful of absolute track and field soothsayers, could have said with certainty that he would outrun Usain Bolt in the 2017 World Championship final. And as De Grasse wrapped up the 2014 season, few observers would have known that by the following summer he would shave nearly a quarter second off his 100-metre personal best, and transform from junior college sprint standout to world championship medallist.

The point here is that new contenders emerge every year, and don’t usually warn the mainstream sports world before they do it.

WATCH | The ascension of Christian Coleman, Andre De Grasse:

Despite following similar paths in their careers, Canada’s Andre De Grasse and American Christian Coleman have yet to race each other professionally in the 100 metres.. CBC Sports’ Anson Henry sets up the much-anticipated 100-metre showdown at the upcoming track and field worlds. 1:38

Still, sidelining the most recent world champion in the most-watched event of the summer Olympics hurts both the games and the sport of track and field. Coleman might not have Bolt’s effusive, yet easy-going, made-for-mainstream audiences personality, but he’s American, and that matters.

Among everyday sports fans and media in the U.S., understanding of track and field is about as broad and deep as an ashtray, which explains why several times a year football writers try to explain why NFL players are faster than Olympic sprinters. This month it’s D.K. Metcalf, the Seattle Seahawks receiver who made highlight reels with his coast-to-coast chase-down of Arizona Cardinals safety Budda Baker last Sunday night. Metcalf’s wearable tech measured his top speed at 22.64 m.p.h., or 10.1 metres per second if you’re fluent in sprinting.

That stat prompted one writer to calculate that Metcalf’s speed, if sustained, converts to 9.88 seconds over 100 metres, except that conclusion assumes Metcalf’s peak speed is also his average — which is impossible. A peak, by definition, isn’t sustained. That’s why it’s a peak. A true 9.88 sprinter likely maxes out north of 11.5 metres per second. Track aficionados understand that distinction, but people raised on U.S. football, and hand-timed 40-yard dashes as the gold standard of speed, often don’t.

Enter Coleman, who went viral in 2016 when he ran a 40 under NFL Combine conditions and clocked 4.12 seconds, a full tenth of a second faster than the best time ever recorded at the combine. That figure might mean little in the track and field world, but it translates Coleman’s speed into a language U.S. sports fans recognize. And so it positioned him as a bridge between a sport that gains mainstream attention for two weeks every Olympic summer, and the massive North American fan base that could make the whole enterprise more lucrative.

Instead, Coleman has a suspension he’ll have to appeal to the Court for Arbitration in Sport, hoping a win will put him on the start line next season. If he loses he’ll have to watch the Tokyo 100 metre final, probably on television or from a safe social distance, one more way the World’s Fastest Man is just like the rest of us.



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