Phenom: Usain Bolt celebrates victory and a new world record in the men's 4x100 metres relay final at the World Athletics Championships at in Daegu last year Photo: GETTY IMAGES
By Paul Hayward
No athlete since Carl Lewis in 1988 has retained the 100 metres or 200m Olympic titles. Bolt’s previously unanswerable brilliance has history to conquer as well his younger countryman, Yohan Blake, and the resurgent Americans Justin Gatlin and Tyson Gay.
‘Lightning’ Bolt has been the lodestar of the London Olympics since he smashed his own 100m world record at the World Championships in Berlin in 2009, lowering his 100m Beijing time from 9.69 sec to 9.58 sec and his 200m mark from 19.30 sec to 19.19 sec.
The regal title of world’s fastest man seemed his to hold until he tired of the responsibility and walked away. Beating Bolt in a dash had strayed into the realms of impossibility. If he ran to his best, the rest of the field was the tail to his kite. The outcome was already known.
Not any more. The London sprints now have a precious extra quality: uncertainty. Doubt has joined the party, heaping pressure on Bolt and spurring on those who seek to bring him down.
Hamstring trouble has restricted his public appearances and created a rolling ‘injury’ drama that has added to the intrigue. While Bolt trains away from the spotlight, the retired American sprinters’ club have ganged up on him, promoting Blake as the likely winner and bolstering the confidence of the post-scandal US fliers.
“Usain will go out there and continue to do the things he does... but Blake is going to win,” said Maurice Greene, the 100m champion in Sydney in 2000. Greene was from the American cannonball school of low thrust and squat muscularity.
Bolt is another type. Long and lean at 6ft 5in, and with a huge stride, he expends much of his mental energy at the start of races arranging his body into an effective blast-off position. His sweeping stride usually gets him out of trouble.
Greene thinks Bolt’s sharp initial rise from the blocks creates a vulnerability which Blake and others can exploit. “When you push a refrigerator, do you want to push it standing up or get down low where you can really push?” he said.
“He’s not in that good pushing position. So he rushes everything else.” But hang on. The big-man method worked well enough in Beijing and Berlin.
The difference now is that Bolt has lost his aura of invincibility. In the Jamaican trials in Kingston this year, Bolt started badly in the 100m and was unable to catch Blake. In the 200m his friend and training partner ram right past him in the final 70 metres. The unthinkable had come to pass and the London sprints were turned upside down.
Cue a knock on the door of Dr Hans-Wilhelm Müller-Wohlfahrt, body guru to the stars, in Munich, to address possibly back-related hamstring trouble.
Like an imperiled king, Bolt has continued to send out messages of conviction and defiance. In an interview last month he promised: “I’ve been saying this for years: this will be the moment, this will be the year, this is my time.”
The 100m final falls on the 50th anniversary of Jamaican independence.
Embroiled in drugs scandals, American sprinting skulked away while the Jamaicans strode into the void left by the likes of Gatlin, who is a contender again following a four-year ban from the sport. The old gang are helping Gatlin and Gay to rough up Bolt verbally as he seeks to become the first since Lewis to win back-to-back Olympic golds.
Lewis was beaten by the yellow-eyed Ben Johnson in Seoul in 1988 but retained the crown on Johnson’s disqualification for rampant steroid use. “It’s very rare to repeat success,” Lewis said.
“To win two Olympic 100m titles – nobody else has ever done it. History defines the greatest. You need longevity and consistency. I had an 18-year career. I think the 100m will be a little different to what people think.”
Talking to Richard Moore, author of a book about the Seoul 100m called The Dirtiest Race in History, Lewis refused to eulogise Bolt and said of his blockbusting times: “Time will tell.”
But Lewis lacks credibility on this score. He has admitted failing three tests during the 1988 US Olympic trials. He escaped a ban from the Seoul Games by claiming he had ingested a banned substance via a herbal remedy. Johnson, many believe, played the fall guy.
Politics will not take up a lane when the gun sounds for tonight’s 100m final, however hard Lewis tries to inflate Gay and Gatlin. “I think the Americans will dominate in all the sprints,” Lewis says, contrary to almost all the evidence. “I think overall America will have more medals and golds in the sprints than any other country.”
The formidable Jamaican sprint team will have something to say about that.
An additional stress on Bolt is that he was disqualified for a false start at last year’s World Championships in Daegu. So the Berlin 100m win was his last in a major tournament.
That was three years ago. In the meantime Blake has advanced in leaps. Yet Bolt is still regarded as the saviour of track and field: an instantly recognisable global figure to rank alongside Tiger Woods. “A lot of people have said it, so maybe it’s true,” Bolt said. “I’ve done a great deal for the sport. After Beijing 2008, I tried to put the fire into the sport.”
But how many days does he have left in that office? Blake has run the year’s fastest 100m time (9.7 sec) and is the second quickest ever over 200m (19.26 sec). His two wins over Bolt on Jamaican soil shook the sport. And in an interview with Donald McRae, Bolt attempted to shift the heat to his young compatriot by questioning his ability to carry the burden of favourite.
“It’s not going to be him alone,” Bolt said of his challengers. “It’s going to be me, Asafa Powell, Tyson, Justin Gatlin [the 2004 Olympic 100m champion] and all these guys.
It’s a packed race with top-class athletes so it will be a different level of competition for Yohan. It’s going to take a lot of focus. And it’s going to cause a lot of stress. It will really test him as an athlete - and as a person overall. We’ll see how good he is. If the weather is great I definitely think it could be the greatest race.
“We have six guys who, for sure, can run under 9.9 and they should all make the final. So there is no doubt this could go down as the greatest final ever.”
Blake was a non-combatant four years ago. “In 2008 I was watching the Olympics at home. I had just left school,” he says.
“I tried out for the Olympic team and didn’t make it because I was young and not that strong. But look at me four years down the road. I am confident, coach [Glen] Mills has been preparing me for this moment. I took confidence from Daegu, I know what I can do. I am bringing it to London.
“When I train I train like a beast. That’s why Usain gave me the name. Off the track it’s different. He is a calm guy. We are always friends.
"We always have fun, joke around. On the day it’s all business, each man for himself. Win or lose we are going to be friends. I try not to build up a rivalry because at the end of the day it’s just a race. If you focus on a rivalry you might get distracted.”
Bolt, though, brings a level of chutzpah to track and field that no rival can match. His egocentricity is both serious and self-consciously comic. He showboated over the line in the Beijing 100m and was rebuked for it by Jacques Rogge, the International Olympic Committee president, who judged that his celebration lacked “respect” for the other runners.
Rogge’s generation is unlikely to realise that Bolt is working from a textbook of modern cartoon hero antics. “People like that stuff,” he says.
To think of it as arrogance would be to misunderstand the knockabout culture of his upbringing in Jamaica. In a recent documentary he was shown consistently not taking himself too seriously except when it comes to domination on the track.
With his physical attributes - a 10-foot stride, a basketball player’s height - Bolt has been able to intimidate a generation of sprinters. The only doubt is whether those qualities can be stretched from Games to Games, given the extreme demands of 100m and 200m running, and the inevitability of fresh challenges from eager youngsters.
For the biggest threat to emerge from his own training circle affirms the power of Jamaican sprinting. Blake has not accepted a subservient role.
These London Olympics, meanwhile, are so strong that they could cope with Bolt’s defeat without feeling they had lost their most photogenic moment.
Great sport is erupting all around and the fact that Bolt now has to fight to retain his supremacy only adds to the story.
His withdrawal from the Monaco Diamond League meet last month and his admission that he will line up in London only “95 per cent” suggest we will not see the mighty Bolt we remember from Beijing. Or maybe he was getting his excuses in early. There are still things he will bring, if not full fitness. Star quality. Charisma. Character.
After seeing America’s Ryan Bailey run 9.88 sec to equal his personal best and Gatlin coast home in 9.97 sec in Saturday’s first round, Bolt took his place on the blocks to squeals from the crowd. He rubbed his head anxiously and pointed to the sky, muttering.
But if the troubles of the past three months have damaged his confidence his speed appeared undiminished as he jogged home in 10.09 sec. “It was a bad start, I stumbled, but I’m glad it happened now,” he said.
Just to see him on the track after his withdrawal from the Monaco Diamond League meet was a relief. Yet the nightmare scenario (for the organisers) of a Gatlin win seemed a little closer as he continued his improbable comeback from a long doping suspension. Blake qualified in 10.00 sec and Britain’s talented Adam Gemili advanced in 10.11. Gemili, 18, is the fastest rising sprinter but this Olympic final will be played out by Bolt, Blake, Gatlin, Gay and perhaps now Bailey.