BEIJING — Usain Bolt still found a way. Despite a shortage of competition and a surplus of doubts, the Jamaican sprinter had just enough speed to hold off Justin Gatlin to win the men’s 100 meters at the world championships here on Sunday.
In a final that was billed as a morality play, Bolt, the 29-year-old world-record holder, finished one-hundredth of a second ahead of Gatlin, the 33-year-old American who has twice served doping suspensions.
Bolt did not come close to his record of 9.58 seconds, but his time of 9.79 seconds gave him his third 100-meter world title, after victories in 2009 and 2013.
“I came out here relaxed, no stress and brought it home,” Bolt said. “My aim is to be the number one until I retire, and therefore I am pushing myself and pushing myself. It is all about running the race and getting it done. You can call that race rusty. I could have run faster.”
Gatlin, the 2005 world 100-meter champion, finished in 9.80, well off his season best of 9.74 recorded in May. With 20 meters to go, it appeared he might be able to outsprint Bolt but Gatlin lost his rhythm with about five paces remaining and was off balance as he headed for the finish.
“I stumbled a little bit and it cost me momentum,” Gatlin said. “I think it was a great race, and I feel honored to be out here.”
“Of course everybody wants to come out here and win, but I came out here, got nipped at the line by the great Usain,” he added. “Hopefully I have more great races to come.”
Trayvon Bromell, a 20-year-old American, and Andre De Grasse, a 20-year-old Canadian, both finished in 9.92 seconds and each won bronze medals.
Bolt nearly did not make the final at all. Running in the first of the three semifinals, he got off to a quick start by his standards and then scuffed a toe on the track and stumbled. At 50 meters, he was well behind the leaders but fought his way back.
He managed to cross just ahead of De Grasse, with both finishing in 9.96 seconds. But while De Grasse looked delighted, Bolt was shaking his head and pursing his lips as he slowed down.
“I’m not worried,” Bolt told Jamaican reporters afterward. “I felt good at the start, but I don’t know what happened with that stumble.”
There would be no such misadventures for Gatlin, who won the next semifinal in 9.77 seconds. Tyson Gay of the United States won the last semifinal in 9.96 seconds, just ahead of Asafa Powell of Jamaica in 9.97.
In all, nine men would qualify for the final, and for the first time in world championships history, all of them had to run under 10 seconds to qualify.
But that was not the statistic that generated the most discussion before the final.
“Impossible to be excited for the men’s 100m,” tweeted Alysia Montaño, an American 800-meter runner. “Three convicted drug cheats…Three…Give me a break.”
Actually, it was four: Gatlin, Gay, Powell and Mike Rodgers of the United States. And other veteran observers were not prepared to believe there might not be more.
“Too frequently these world champ events have subsequently been shown to involve PED enhanced competitors,” tweeted Richard Ings, former head of the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority, referring to performance-enhancing drugs. “I will wait for 2025 retests.”
Bolt and Gatlin had not raced each other since the 2013 world championships, where Gatlin had to settle for silver against Bolt in the 100 and in the 4-by-100 relay where both men ran the anchor legs.
They first raced in a major championship 10 years ago in Helsinki in 2005 where an injured Bolt finished last in the world championship 200-meter final and Gatlin completed his sweep of the 100 and 200, and looked set to settle in for an extended reign as the world’s leading sprinter.
A year later, he was out of the sport and serving his second doping suspension, which was eventually reduced to four years.