Usain Bolt, who set three world records four years ago at the Beijing Olympics, was recently defeated in both the 100- and 200-meter sprints by fellow Jamaican Yohan Blake.
EDITOR'S NOTE: In preparation for the start of the 2012 Summer Olympics, The Herald will count down the days until the Games begin July 27 in London with at least one preview or feature in each day’s sports section about the athletes and their stories that make the Olympic Games so special. Enjoy!
Almost from the moment Usain Bolt finished his 3-for-3-for-3 performance at the Beijing Olympics — three events, three gold medals, three world records — everyone began to wonder what he would do for an encore four years later.
That all changed in the span of about 72 hours.
Yohan Blake, Bolt’s countryman, workout partner and rival, beat the World’s Fastest Man in the 100- and 200-meter finals at Jamaica’s Olympic trials. Bolt’s subsequent withdrawal from a meet in Monaco only added to the intrigue.
As the start of the Summer Games approaches, it appears Bolt will have to do more than merely run a series of time trials to notch three more victories and cement his name as the “living legend” he hopes to become. Instead, there are questions, namely: Will Bolt be able to hold off Blake? Or will Blake’s challenge only serve to spur him?
No surprise what Bolt’s take is.
“He’s very determined and he wants to win,” Bolt said about Blake, “and that keeps pushing me.”
Other athletes are fascinated by that duo and the fireworks they could produce in London, where athletics competition begins in 80,000-seat Olympic Stadium on Aug. 3 with preliminaries in the women’s 100-meter heats. The men take to the track a day later for their dash.
“That’s a scary thought: Yohan Blake and Usain Bolt training together. … That should kick in that extra motivation, if there’s anything needed there,” U.S. hurdler David Oliver said. “Just to see what those two guys are capable of doing, if they’re both on?”
Bolt’s world records are 9.58 seconds in the 100, and 19.19 in the 200. Blake ran a personal-best 9.75 at trials and has a 19.26 in the longer race.
“You just never know,” Oliver added. “It’s going to be a spectacle, that’s for sure.”
That head-to-head showdown might be only one part of what could turn out to be a Jamaica vs. Jamaica Olympics, as opposed to Jamaica vs. The World, or Jamaica vs. U.S.
While the tiny nation was adding Blake to its collection of possible gold medalists, and defending women’s 100 Olympic champion Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce was running the seventh-fastest time ever (10.70) while also adding a 200 national title, the U.S. team experienced as many negatives as positives during its tumultuous Olympic trials.
Decathlete Ashton Eaton set a world record, but teammate Bryan Clay, the defending Olympic champion, didn’t qualify.
A U.S. sprinter with personality, 200-meter runner Wallace Spearmon, found his form, but double Olympic bronze medalist Walter Dix failed to make the team, and 2004 400-meter champion Jeremy Wariner only made it as part of the relay pool.
Allyson Felix, meanwhile, ran a personal-best 21.69 seconds in 200-meter qualifying, but she also took center stage in the controversy that overshadowed not only that accomplishment but the entire trials, really: How to settle a dead heat for the third and final spot in the women’s 100.
The possibility of a coin flip, of all things, was raised in the scramble to come up with never-thought-about rules. A full week later, the sprinters settled on a runoff; shortly after that finally was decided, Felix’s opponent, Jeneba Tarmoh, pulled out.
Felix will be a long shot for a medal in the 100, while in the 200, she seeks her first individual Olympic gold — the main prize missing from a career that includes three world championships and two runner-up finishes on track’s biggest stage.
“People may wonder, ‘What in the world? Shelly-Ann ran 10.70 and you’re nowhere close to that,’” said Felix, whose personal best in the 100 is 10.92. “But it’s about making my 200 better and giving it my all.”
The woman who beat Felix in Athens and Beijing is Veronica Campbell-Brown of Jamaica, who is going for her third consecutive title at 200 meters, but now finds another familiar face also posing a threat. That’s Fraser-Pryce, who was not considered a 200 specialist but beat Campbell-Brown to the line by 0.32 seconds at trials.
“Trials is just the means to get us to the Olympics,” Campbell-Brown said. “It’s a competitive thing. We all have to show up when it matters the most.”
In Beijing, Jamaica won 11 medals at the track — not bad for a country of about 2.7 million.
Buoyed by sheer numbers up and down the lineup of events, the United States led all nations with 23 medals. But that matched the country’s second-lowest total since 1992, and two medals were squandered when both 4x100-meter relay teams dropped the baton. So instead of celebrating after Beijing, the U.S. track team returned home and tried to regroup.
The result: “Project 30,” a boldly stated mission to win 30 medals in London — a goal that leaders of the track team have only tepidly embraced since former CEO Doug Logan was fired not long after setting it.
“That’s a ‘reach’ goal,” said the new CEO, Max Siegel. “But I’m very confident we’ll have a good showing over in London.”
Among America’s best sprinters is Carmelita Jeter, the world leader at 100 meters before Fraser-Pryce ran faster, and the strongest U.S. candidate to win three medals — in the 100, 200 and 4x100 relay.
And on the men’s side, there are a couple of familiar names: Tyson Gay and Justin Gatlin. Gatlin is the 2004 Olympic champion at 100 meters who is back on the international scene following a four-year ban for excessive testosterone. Gay is the 2007 world champion — the man to beat before Bolt burst onto the scene — who is still working his way back into form from a hip injury, one of a number of ailments starting to dwarf his list of accomplishments.
Gatlin and Gay have met twice in recent weeks, with Gatlin winning at the U.S. Olympic trials, and Gay taking a victory in Paris. If form holds, they’ll be racing for the bronze in the 100 in London.
But as Bolt found out at his Olympic trials, these races are not won on paper.
“These two can really encourage each other and motivate each other to take on that other little island out there who’s been dominating America,” said Renaldo Nehemiah, a former hurdler turned agent who represents Gatlin.
At 400 meters, America has both of the favorites in Sanya Richards-Ross, who still needs individual Olympic gold to fill out her resume, and LaShawn Merritt, trying to take a second gold in a row after serving a 21-month doping ban between Olympics. Rankled at the thought that Merritt can defend his title after a doping ban, Britain’s Dai Greene has promised to give him the cold shoulder should the two meet at the track.
Certainly something to watch for.
But for sheer intrigue in the men’s 400, all eyes will be on Oscar Pistorius of South Africa. Pistorius is a double-amputee and runs on carbon-fiber blades. After years of pleading his case in hearing rooms and months of trying to earn a spot on his country’s team, he’ll become the first amputee runner to compete in an Olympics.
“Today is truly one of the proudest days of my life,” Pistorius said on July 4, when he was named to the team to run in both the individual 400 and the 4x400-meter relay.
The best 1-on-1 matchup this side of Bolt vs. Blake figures to be China’s Liu Xiang against Cuba’s Dayron Robles in the 110-meter hurdles.
At the Athens Games eight years ago, Liu became the first Asian man to win an Olympic sprinting event. Two years later, he broke the world record. Two years after that, Robles ran faster. Then in Beijing, there was the drama of Liu’s withdrawal from a morning heat because of an Achilles tendon injury, leaving a billion or so local fans bitterly disappointed. That set up Robles to claim one of his nation’s two total golds.
Making things even more interesting, Liu and Robles got tangled with each other from adjacent lanes during the world championships last year. So even though Robles crossed the finish line first, he was disqualified and left empty-handed, allowing Jason Richardson of the U.S. to take a surprising gold, and Liu a silver.
In the women’s hurdles, Lolo Jones has turned herself into a media star despite her role as a decided underdog heading into London. She qualified third at U.S. trials and hasn’t run faster than 12.75 this year.
The defending Olympic champion is Dawn Harper. She stayed upright after Jones tripped on the second-to-last hurdle in Beijing, then found herself looking around in disbelief, asking if she had really won, after crossing the line in first. Her toughest competition should come from reigning world champion Sally Pearson of Australia, who has the top time in the world this year, 12.40 seconds.
“It’s a lot different feeling going in where no one expects you to win, to going in where a lot of people expect you to win,” Harper said. “I’ve just got to make sure I keep doing the work, because I want to feel that feeling again.”
As does Russia’s Yelena Isinbayeva, who will be going for a third straight gold medal in one of the premier field events, the women’s pole vault.
No woman in track and field has managed to win an individual Olympic title in each of three successive games.
“This,” Isinbayeva said, “is my goal.”
Of course, no sporting event in Britain would be complete without high expectations for the home athletes.
On the track, the greatest hopes will be vested in Mo Farah, the Somalia-born long-distance runner who is the reigning world champion at 5,000 meters and runner-up at 10,000. Defending 400-meter Olympic champion Christine Ohuruogu, world heptathlon runner-up Jessica Ennis and 38-year-old marathoner Paula Radcliffe are among the others who will have to deal with hometown pressure on top of everything else.
“Head down and concentrating,” Farah said of his preparations, which have taken place in Oregon — in part, an attempt to stay far from the media glare in London.
In the 800 meters, Caster Semenya of South Africa makes her Olympic debut, three years after questions about her gender forced her to undergo tests and drop out of competition for nearly a year before track’s governing body cleared her to race again. She was the silver medalist at last year’s world championships.
And hovering over the entire track meet, especially the sprints, will be the new false start rule introduced for this Olympic cycle. In the past, the entire field was given a freebie, and disqualifications didn’t start until the second person jumped. These days, it’s a no-tolerance policy: You jump once, you’re out.
The most high-profile victim of the rule thus far was Bolt. At the world championships last year, he was disqualified from the 100 for a false start, clearing a path for Blake’s victory.
Until a few weeks ago, most track aficionados thought Bolt could beat Blake if the two actually ran head-to-head.
Didn’t quite work out that way.
At Jamaica’s Olympic trials, Bolt was glacially slow in unfurling his 6-foot-5 frame from the starting blocks, leading to questions about whether the aftershock of last year’s false start was still playing in his mind. Still, Blake was impressive in his own right. He beat Bolt by 0.11 seconds. To put that in perspective, when Bolt coasted to a victory in a then-world-record 9.69 seconds in Beijing, his margin of victory over Richard Thompson of Trinidad and Tobago was 0.20.
So it seems safe to say Bolt is not completely out of the picture.
But he does have some ground to make up.
“It’s just all about the work,” Bolt said. “I’ve just got to put in the work, got to figure out what I did wrong and just keep working at it.”