INTERVIEW: Johnson on IAAF and Bolt

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Sprint legend Michael Johnson (l).

Usain Bolt was only nine years old when he watched Michael Johnson set a thrilling 200m world record at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Running on the sandy tracks of Kingston, a young Bolt pictured what could lie ahead for him in athletics. He dreamt big.

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Thirteen years later and millions around the world tuned in to see Bolt crush Johnson’s 200m record by 0.12 at the 2009 World Championships in Berlin, setting a time of 19.19 seconds.

Bolt is now a six-time Olympic champion and 11-time world champion. Unfinished business remains though as Rio 2016 fast approaches, with the Jamaican bidding for 100m and 200m honours for the third successive games.

The man whose 200m record he broke six years ago has been watching his progress keenly and is backing Bolt to break new ground in Brazil. 

“I think at this point Usain is the greatest sprinter of all time,” Johnson tells Sport360. “There’s no doubt about that. With what he’s already done he’s the greatest there’s ever been.

“In Rio, he has a fantastic opportunity to set another amazing precedent on top of what he’s already achieved. In addition, he has the chance to add another sprint double.”

It is sometimes easy to forget about the impressive longevity of Johnson because the memory of his 200m and 400m double at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics is so engrained on the psyche of athletics fans. But for almost a decade, the American was the finest athlete to grace the track – claiming a total of four Olympic gold medals and eight World Championship titles between 1991 and 2000.

His ability to step up in major competitions is a quality that is certainly mirrored by Bolt, though Johnson feels the Jamaican’s standard-bearing performances are made all the more impressive by his physique, which is not traditionally associated with the fastest sprinters. 

“You would expect, based on historical data that an athlete of his height would be further behind than the other athletes in the first 30 metres,” Johnson explains. “That really is the advantage that he doesn’t lose much ground here at this stage to other athletes who are significantly shorter than him.

“Once he’s up and into his sprinting, he has this massive stride and ability in his turnover to morph himself into a smaller athlete and then take advantage of his height.”

One of the stars looking to halt Bolt’s dominance in Brazil next summer is Justin Gatlin. The American served two lengthy doping bans in 2001 and 2006 but has looked a rejuvenated man over the past two seasons. He was unbeaten in 29 races before losing out to Bolt by one hundredth of a second at the World Championships.

The subtext of clean cut Bolt beating a former drug cheat was everywhere in the aftermath of that final in August, but it is one that wears thin on Johnson, who believes the public should embrace Gatlin’s quest for sprinting supremacy. 

“Bolt has been the best and hasn’t really been challenged over the years,” says Johnson. “This is the first time in his career since he’s come on the scene that he’s been challenged.

“It would be great to have a situation that we have that sort of race without the Good vs Evil narrative. These are two fantastic athletes. Usain, the best there’s ever been, and Justin, who’s the challenger.”

Doping scandals continue to plague athletics and the recent revelations about Russia’s state-sponsored doping program brought fears that the sport’s governing body has still only discovered the tip of the iceberg. 

Former IAAF president Lamine Diack – who was at the helm for 16 years until stepping down in August – was arrested as allegations spread that Russia’s athletes were protected after failing drug tests and pressure has mounted on new chief Seb Coe, who labelled the whole sorry affair a “shameful wake-call’ for the sport”.

Coe has vowed to clean up athletics, something that Johnson believes is vital to repairing the sport’s tarnished reputation.

 “It’s something that’s a huge challenge for the IAAF. We have to restore credibility in the sport first and look for ways to increase the funds available to fight doping. The budget stands at $4million a year, more transparency needs to be accomplished in the organisation.

Under pressure: Seb Coe.

“Athletics has done a good job having a zero tolerance policy towards doping and has led over the years with regards policy towards doping. The issue though is when the conversation moves from being less about who may or may not be doping to whether or not the organisation trusted with protecting those clean athletes and policing the sport is doing its job properly.

“It’s a huge challenge. I think anything should be subject to review and change and adjustment for a complete revamp in the organisation and the way that it’s run. We will see what happens over the next few months but it’s a critical moment for the sport.”

Coe is the man responsible for leading athletics at this critical moment, with the Rio Olympics ensuring the spotlight will be turned firmly on the IAAF in 2016. The jury is currently still out on Coe, but Johnson is hopeful that the new president is capable of parachuting athletics out of its chasm of despair. 

“Is Seb the right person for the job? We will see. He has a tremendous task in front of him. Seb certainly has his work cut out for him, he will have to lead by example and implement the sort of policies that can restore credibility within the sport.”

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Ultimate Athletics triumph in the inaugural Dubai Dash at Sports City

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Off to a flyer: Four hundred and thirty participants took part in Dubai.

Ultimate Athletics were crowned champions, beating more than 40 teams as the Dubai Dash held its first event in the UAE.

A total of 430 runners made up the 43 10-member sides in the corporate relay at Dubai Sports City with each participant running 1.5km.

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Ultimate Athletics won the race in 45:56:73, more than two minutes ahead of Atlantis, who finished runners-up, while Dubai Sports City took third place.

Lisa Campbell of Ultimate Athletics, said: “The Dubai Dash is a great initiative to get corporate teams active. Being passionate about sport, it was great to compete together as a team.  We wanted to represent Ultimate Athletics, Saucony our sponsors and also make our athletes proud.”

While the emphasis was on promoting team building, corporate wellness and networking, Dubai Dash organisers also presented the Al Jalila Foundation with an Dh8,000 donation.

Sally Corander, founder of Dubai Dash, said: “The Al Jalila Foundation reflects many of the values of the Dubai Dash as it supports ground-breaking research that addresses health challenges prevalent in the region.

“We are delighted with the interest and turn out at the event, it is fantastic to see so many companies in the Emirates coming together through sport and encouraging team work among their staff.”

Entries also included DMCC, DHL, Standard Chartered and Dubai Airports.

“The Dubai Dash is a unique opportunity to get everyone energised outside of the work environment, whilst strengthening team unity,” said Claire Love, head of corporate development and change management for Dubai Airports.

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Oscar Pistorius to return to court after murder conviction

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Bail hearing: Oscar Pistorius.

Former Paralympic champion Oscar Pistorius will appear in court Tuesday for a bail hearing that could put him back in prison after he was convicted of his girlfriend’s murder on appeal.

South African appeal judges last week found him guilty of murder and overturned his earlier conviction on the lesser charge of culpable homicide for shooting dead Reeva Steenkamp in 2013.

Pistorius, 29, was released from jail in October and is under house arrest in Pretoria after serving one year of his five-year prison sentence for culpable homicide — the equivalent of manslaughter.

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“His (earlier) conviction has been overturned, so his sentence from before has been scrapped,” Lusanda Ntuli, spokeswoman for the justice ministry, told AFP. “The defence and prosecution will present their arguments.”

The double-amputee sprinter, known as the “Blade Runner” because of the prosthetic legs he uses on the track, now faces a minimum 15-year jail sentence for murder, although the term could be shorter due to mitigating factors such being a first-time offender.

“If he is given bail, it may come with different conditions perhaps not as stringent as house arrest,” criminal lawyer Martin Hood told AFP ahead of the hearing in Pretoria High Court at 9:30 am (0730 GMT).

Pistorius killed Steenkamp, a model and law graduate, at his home in Pretoria, saying he mistook her for an intruder when he shot four times through the locked door of his bedroom toilet.

The South African Supreme Court of Appeal changed his conviction to murder and sent the case for re-sentencing, saying the original trial judge had made “fundamental” errors in her ruling last year.

The appeal decision, read by judge Eric Leach, said that it was “inconceivable that a rational person could have believed he was entitled to fire at this person with a heavy calibre firearm”.

No date has yet been announced for his re-sentencing, which is expected early next year. Last month, Pistorius made his first appearance in public since leaving jail when he reported for community service at a Pretoria police station.

He killed Steenkamp at the peak of his fame, and he has since lost his glittering sports career, lucrative contracts and status as a global role model for the disabled.

Pistorius may make his own appeal to the Constitutional Court — the country’s highest court, but his lawyers have said he cannot afford further legal battles after paying huge bills.

“I wanted respect for my daughter’s life, and that’s what I got,” Reeva’s mother June Steenkamp, who was in court, said shortly after the unanimous ruling by five appeal judges.

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