Bolt still the favorite in Beijing, but history says anything can happen
EUGENE, Ore -- On Saturday morning, no less an authority on track and field than Michael Johnson conceded the future of the 100- and 200-meter races to 21-year-old Jamaican Usain Bolt. There is evidence to support Johnson's theory.
Bolt, a world-class 200-meter runner since he was a teenager, stunned the track and field world this spring by dropping down to the more glamorous 100 meters and dropping a world record 9.72 seconds on reigning world champion Tyson Gay at the Reebok Track Classic in New York City on May 31. It was, indeed, a stunning moment. The six-foot-five Bolt beat Gay like he was a child. And he beat the rest of a good international field event worse. Gay ran a very fast 9.85 seconds and looked like he was running a different race from Bolt.
Gay accepted his defeat graciously -- in the same manner as he does most things -- and went back to work. Here Johnson suggested that Gay is working for silver medals.
"I'm Tyson, I just hope for the best for myself, and hope for the worst for Bolt,'' said Johnson, speaking to reporters after a press conference for reigning Olympic 400-meter champion Jeremy Wariner, whom Johnson manages. "It's just ridiculous the way Bolt is running, and as a competitor I would have to acknowledge that.''
Johnson holds one of the most venerable world records in track and field, his insane 19.32 seconds for the 200 meters in the 1996 Olympic final. At the time bronze medalist Ato Boldon of Trinidad and Tobago said that he did not expect to the see record broken in his lifetime and Boldon was then 22 years old. The closest any runner has come to Johnson's mark is Gay's 19.62 (into a slight wind, impressive) at last year's USA Track and Field national championships.
Now Bolt has run 9.72 to go with a 19.75 that he ran last summer and Johnson says his record is as good as gone. "I'm ready to kiss it goodbye at this point, because of what's he's doing.''
Johnson is not alone in espousing Bolt-mania. Make me bet my kids' college money on the Olympic meters and I would probably bet it on Bolt. But track and field in the Olympic year is often not a formful activity. Strange things happen.
(In the days leading to the Olympic 100-meter final four years ago in Athens, both Johnson and 1996 Olympic 100-meter gold medalist Donovan Bailey virtually guaranteed that Jamaican Asafa Powell would win the gold medal. And he had looked mighty sharp in the rounds. But in the final, Powell finished fifth and Justin Gatlin won the gold medal. Funny things happen).
Funny things happened yesterday in the women's 100 meters in Eugene. On Friday night Marshavet Hooker and Torri Edwards ran so well in the quarterfinals that they looked certain to make the Olympic team. Then Edwards ran a blistering (and wind legal) 10.78 seconds in the semfinal. Came the final and Edwards ran only 10.90 to finish second. Muna Lee, the closest thing to a journeyman (journeywoman) sprinter you will find, threw down the race of her life and won in 10.85 seconds, a PR by .12 seconds.
The indomitable Lauryn Williams endured an agonizing on-track wait until her name was posted as the third-place finisher. "That was the most nervous wreck feeling I've ever had,'' said Williams, a beautiful piece of syntax-mashing.
Lee, meanwhile, in the last year has changed coaches, beaten back injuries (three weeks ago she skipped the Prefontaine Classic here with a sore hamstring), and just two weeks ago, was involved in an automobile accident in her training center of College Station, Texas. She was not anybody's favorite to win the Olympic Trials, including her own. She admitted to being terrified in the call room before the race. "Everybody had their serious faces on,'' she said.
Yet in the final 20 meters, she overhauled Edwards and won the race. Stuff happens on this stage.
Back to Gay, Bolt and the 100 meters.
In the first round the 100 on Saturday, Gay popped from the blocks and opened a huge lead on an overmatched field. Then, as sprinters do, he dialed back his tempo. But he did it 20 meters from the finish and was passed by three runners, barely making the top-four finish needed to advance to the second round. (Although he would have qualified on time, in any case). Gay says, "I missed the white line on the track.'' That's possible, but it was embarrassing.
Two-and-a-half hours later, Gay didn't misjudge the finish line. He started aggressively, ripped open his quarterfinal race and floated through the line in a stunning 9.77 seconds. The time broke Maurice Greene's American record of 9.79 (set in 1999) and put Gay alone as the third-fastest man in history behind Bolt and Powell (9.74 best).
Asked after the race how much of the full race he ran hard, Gay said, "Not 100.''
Here is the most salient fact to consider in the big picture. In one race, Gay ran his personal best by .07 seconds and sliced the difference between his best and Bolt's down to .05. That's no small margin, but it's seriously smaller than .12 seconds.
Shortly after Gay's race, Bolt ran 9.85 to win the Jamaican Olympic Trials. Powell, still coming back from April shoulder surgery, was second in 9.97 seconds.
I didn't see the race in Kingston, Jamaica. Colleague Gene Cherry of Reuters heard from his sources in Jamaica that Bolt, like Gay, let up slightly at the end. So here is what we have: On the same day, Gay runs 9.77 in his second race of the day (he still has two more on Sunday, assuming he makes the final) and Bolt runs 9.85 in his third race in two days. The times are worth noting.
Bolt is a scary talent. So is Powell. Or was. But running a one-off world record and surviving four rounds at the Olympic Games are two very different things. Gay knows. He has already done it, winning both the 100 and 200 at last year's World Championships in Osaka, Japan. Bolt is no novice, having won the silver behind Gay in Osaka.
But he has never been the Olympic 100-meter favorite, with four rounds to run (never mind the stifling conditions that might exist in Beijing). "The strongest man through the rounds will be the man who wins,'' Gay told me in Texas in April. That was before Bolt emerged. That was before Powell got healthy. But it still holds.
Beating Bolt is a daunting task, no question. But as of this moment, the coronation will wait for the actual race. Any concession would be premature.