100m shoot-out

This article about the men’s Olympic 100m showdown was written by Pat Butcher for his Blog


Forget the demonstrations against the Olympic torch relay. There will be a greater dismay throughout China at the moment, following the high hurdles world record of 12.87 seconds last week for young Cuban Dayron Robles. Because the record that Robles broke in Ostrava, Czech Republic belonged to Liu Xiang, Olympic gold medallist in Athens 2004, on whose broad shoulders rest a whole nation’s hopes for a repeat performance in the Olympic Games’ premier sport in two months time. And if the elegant French hurdler, Ladji Doucoure has finally overcome the injuries that have blighted his career since beating Liu to the world title in 2005, then the Birds’ Nest (the nickname for the girdered surround of the Beijing stadium) is going to witness a major cliffhanger. Yet despite the close attention of 1.3 billion Chinese, the high hurdles will still be a side-show to the shoot-out expected in the 100 metres.

Because Usain Bolt’s sub-20sec 200 metres in Ostrava, coupled with his unexpected 100 metres world record in New York a couple of weeks ago has put a whole new gloss on the Olympic men’s sprint final. From a straight re-match between Bolt’s Jamaican colleague and now former world record holder Asafa Powell, and the American Tyson Gay, who outpsyched Powell to win the world title in Osaka last summer, it now looks like a three way showdown, mutating from High Noon to Gunfight at the OK Corral.

The Olympic sprint final has always had something of the Western movie about it. That may have something to do with the vivid memory of Linford Christie celebrating his victory in Barcelona 1992 by firing off imaginary pistols into the crowd. But it’s also that swaggering around before the start, the threatening looks of the favourites, the nervous glances of the underdogs, the raising of the tension as the protagonists loiter, trying to outstay one another, before easing into the blocks with all the coiled potential of a Colt 45 in a well-oiled holster. Then the breathless suspense - like the scene in The Wild Bunch after Mapache has been shot - before all hell breaks loose.

The suspense is already building. And it will only end in something under ten seconds after the gun goes in the Beijing Olympic Stadium around 22.30 (14.30GMT) on August 16. And the last man standing is almost certain to be one of the trio, Gay, Bolt and Powell. And thereby hangs an intriguing part of the tale. Throughout the more than a century of Modern Olympic history, US sprinters have dominated the 100 metres, winning 16 of 24 races since 1896. The Jamaicans also have a great history of sprinting, albeit only half as long as the Americans. But, despite a string of great sprinters, from Herb McKenley to last year’s world champion, Veronica Campbell, no Jamaican, man or woman, has ever won the Olympic 100 metres title. Sure, there have been Jamaican-born winners, three in succession, 1988-96, the ultimately banned Ben Johnson, then Christie and Donovan Bailey, but they have come gift-wrapped in the Maple Leaf and the Union Jack. The green, black and gold has yet to flutter centre screen over an Olympic 100 metres medal ceremony.

If it does so this year, there will be further pride in a home-grown accomplishment, because the days when Jamaican sprinters could only flourish by taking up US college sports scholarships are over. Powell and Bolt are homeboys in the best sense. Quizzing Bolt on the subject in a telephone conference call last week, he said, “I can’t really live outside Jamaica, and I definitely can’t live in the cold”. Bolt has evidently read Merlene Ottey’s account of ending up in Nebraska (think snow!). But the hothouse of US collegiate competition, where a single false start is enough to see you disqualified, served Gay well. It encourages respect for the starter, as well as blazing speed. And after the years of Maurice Greene’s braggadocio, Gay has impressed even US fans with his quiet demeanour, and vocal respect for his opponents, no more so than after finishing well down, comparatively on Bolt in the young Jamaican’s world record run of 9.72sec in New York two Sundays ago. Gay nevertheless ran within a hundredth of his best, and will surely be a different prospect in Beijing.

The college circuit might have done Powell a lot of good, because he has been found wanting competitively at the highest level. Marginal favourite for the Olympic title in Athens, following decisive victories beforehand, the long wait on the track before the final unsettled him more than anyone. He could only finish fifth behind Gatlin, who went on to win the 200 metres as well. Powell missed the Helsinki world championships through injury, and though he took the Commonwealth title in 2006, and broke the world record on either side of Osaka last summer, he folded spectacularly in the world final, only finishing third behind Gay, who went on to beat Bolt to the 200 metres title.

But not only is Bolt a very different, ie faster runner this year, he is also a very different character to Powell. Bolt’s Irish agent Ricky Simms was aghast too find Bolt cheering on a Jamaican junior relay team then going to congratulate them just ten minutes prior to his world record run in New York. “He was just laughing and joking around, and I had to say, come on, you’ve got a serious race in ten minutes. All he said was, you’ll see. The first thing he did when he crossed the line and saw he’d broken the world record was to come over and say, I got you back”. Bolt himself says, “I spend the whole night before, thinking about the race, and what I’m going to do, and the situations I might find myself in, then I put it aside. I try not to think about it on the day”.

If he can carry that demeanour through to the Olympic final, he will be a mighty formidable opponent for Gay and Powell. That is, if Bolt runs the 100 metres at all. He says he will only decide after the Jamaican Trials at the end of this month, and in any case, he says the decision is up to his coach, Glen Mills. Because up to a month ago, when he ran 9.75sec, ie one hundredth down on Powell’s then record, Bolt was known only as a 200 metres runner. Indeed his world record run in New York was only his fifth senior outing at 100 metres. “I’ll definitely be doing the 200 metres. It’s my favourite event, I’ve dedicated my whole life to it, I want to be one of the best 200 metres runners ever”. Yet the way he’s running, ditto the 100 metres.

(a version of this article appeared in the Financial Times on Saturday, June 14)