Asafa Powell interview: pre-London 20July05


Asafa Powell: the soft spoken speed man is all set for London

Wednesday 20 July 2005

London, UK - ‘The fastest man in the world’ is a tag that attaches itself to a rare minority of athletes - only eight men have broken the World 100m record since electronic timing was introduced in the late 1960s.

On some, the mantle has sat easily, a well-fitting crown to revel in, to swagger under. On others, it’s appeared to hang heavy like an oversized cloak, damp with too much expectation. Few, though, can have worn it so lightly as the current bearer.

Athens World record: Asafa Powell (centre) - Francis Obikwelu of Portugal (left) and Aziz Zakari of Ghana (right)
(AFP/Getty Images)

The Quiet Man

Asafa Powell, the IAAF World Ranked number one for 100m, is just 22, and only three years into his professional athletics career, and is nothing if not laid back. Much like his Caribbean colleague, World champion Kim Collins (SKN), the Jamaican lets his legs do the talking - and never more loudly than in Athens on 14 June when he ran 9.77 to break Tim Montgomery’s three year old World record by just one hundredth of a second.

Unlike many sprinters, Powell proves that fast running does not have to mean fast talking. Indeed, in person, the fastest human is so soft spoken he’s almost silent. A room full of hacks (writers) is often left hanging on the pronouncements of the world’s best athletes, but rarely do they need to lean forwards simply to catch the words.

Asafa Powell powers to the 9.77 second World record in Athens
(AFP/Getty Images)

Powell’s gentle unease under the spotlight does not betray a lack of confidence, however. Far from it. In his quiet, brief responses to prompting questions he reveals an inner strength and self-belief that has made him one of the hottest properties on the international circuit and a man tipped to take sprinting into a new era.

Can he break the World record again? “Yes, I want to,” he replies. “But it depends if I’m in good shape. I’m not sure where but I think I can do it again.”

Can he repeat last year’s performance at the London Grand Prix on Friday (22) - he ran 9.91 in 2004, the fastest time ever in Britain, and beat former World champion Maurice Greene? “Last year was my first race against Greene,” he says. “You could say it went well. If the weather is good I hope it will be the same.”

Asafa Powell greets the fans after his 9.85 win in Ostrava
(Hasse Sjögren)

I always want to win

How does he feel about facing Olympic champion Justin Gatlin? “There are six other guys in the race; I’m not focusing on anyone,” he replies. “I just want to win. I always want to win.”

Will Friday’s race - which also includes Collins, Greene and Britain’s Jason Gardener (though not mark Lewis-Francis who still has a hamstring injury) - tell us who’s going to win in Helsinki? “It’s only one race,” he says. “It’s good to be up against the best in the world, but in Helsinki there are four rounds so it’s very different.”

Asafa Powell sweats up after his scorching 9.84 dash in the 2005 Jamaica International
(Errol Anderson (The Sporting Image))

Coping with championships

How does he feel about the accusation that he can’t cope with championship racing? Powell was disqualified for a false start at the World Championships in Paris two years ago, and “only” finished fifth in the Olympic final last year when he was expected to win. “That was lack of experience,” he says of the Athens race. “I ran the rounds too hard and tired in the final. I wanted the title but there are more to come.”

No doubt there are. Many are predicting a rivalry between Powell and Gatlin that could define world sprinting until the end of the decade and push it to new levels. Powell is too diplomatic and circumspect to predict such a thing, though he’s quick to play down the fact that in their only other meeting this year he came off second best - his only defeat in 11 races since the Olympic final.

“That was not really a race for me,” he says of their neck-and-neck clash at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene on 4 June. “I was only running at 95 per cent because I was not 100 per cent fit.”

For a race that was not a race, he ran a pretty swift time, 9.84, even if it was aided by a +3.4 wind. He’d clocked the same time in Kingston on 18 May with a legal wind, a run that made him the Commonwealth record holder and equal third fastest of all time.

Few doubted then that he would soon leap to the top of the tree and that impression was only sharpened when he clocked 9.85 in the cold and wet of Ostrava on 9 June. Five days later the World record was his, set on the same track as Greene’s 1999 mark of 9.79 and, ironically, the site of Powell’s biggest disappointment to date.

Underperforming in the Olympic final was clearly a major blow. After losing to Gatlin again in Eugene, some have suggested he “bottled out” of their next scheduled showdown at the Rome TDK Golden League on 8 July. But Powell’s manager Paul Doyle is quick to dispel such rumours.

“He was really upset that he couldn’t run there,” says Doyle, pointing out that Powell, his coach Stephen Francis, and his training group - known as MVP, for Maximising Velocity and Power - have been based in Rome for the last three European seasons and regard the Rome meeting almost as a home fixture. Powell pulled out of the race because of a right groin strain he sustained at the Jamaican championships on 24 June which has still not entirely cleared up.

At his best he can’t be beaten right now

“It hasn’t 100 per cent gone,” says Doyle. “It is 90 per cent better but the last 10 per cent is still troubling. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to it. Some days it’s fine and some days it’s sensitive. Only two days ago it tightened up a bit in training. But we’re hoping with a little therapy he will be 100 per cent by Friday.”

Powell, says Doyle, only ran hard for 50 metres in Eugene, then relaxed. “In London he’ll at least have the chance to feel it out in a heat before he lets loose in the final.” Nevertheless, he adds, “it’s definitely something on our minds. He’ll make a good decision if he needs to because it would be devastating if he didn’t have the chance to go on and win the Worlds. At his best he can’t be beaten right now. But he has to be at his best.”

Proving his fitness

Powell admits himself that one of his aims on Friday is simply “to prove to myself that I’m fine”. After all, he and Gatlin will meet again in Stockholm just four days later. “I’ve been training well in the last couple of days,” he says. “It is disturbing to have an injury so close to the World Championships. But I’m not worried about it.”

Powell points out that he had the same injury in his left leg back in May, a month before he became the fastest man in the world. “That one was worse and it’s better now,” he says. “I trained yesterday and felt good. It felt like the old Asafa Powell.”

An “old Asafa Powell” is a hard thing to contemplate right now, although he admits his life has already changed since he became World record holder. In his early career he lived with and was supported by his parents, and ran in kit handed down from his brother, Donovan. It helped to make him the quietly confident athlete he is. “I had to put that extra effort in,” he says. “When you have things too easy, I think some people hold back.”

Now he is having to get used to pressure of fame - even in laid back Jamaica. “I have a lot more responsibility,” he says. “There’s more pressure on me now. I feel like I have to win everywhere I go. People feel privileged to shake my hand. Everyone is excited about meeting me and sometimes I have to find some time to myself. I don’t really get much of that right now.”

He’ll get even less if he becomes World champion in just over two weeks time. But somehow, you feel, this man of explosive speed and whispered words won’t mind too much about that.

Matthew Brown for the IAAF