The Phenom (cont.)
Powell owns six cars, his only indulgence. On a late spring afternoon he arrived at practice in a Nissan Skyline outfitted with a 500-horsepower engine; after his workout he gunned the car across the parking lot, tires screeching and smoking as they left skid marks behind. It was behavior typical of a cocky sprinter, but Powell's bravado faded when he stepped out of the car, grinning sheepishly.
He grew up the youngest of six boys born to Cislin and William Powell, pastors in the parish of St. Catherine. Powell joined the MVP club at age 18 in 2001 and lived in a spartan dormitory at the University of Technology in Kingston. His family has faced tragedy: In '02 Powell's brother Michael was shot to death in New York City; a year later his brother Vaun died of natural causes on a soccer field. "It was so shocking," says Asafa. "I almost felt like, Who's next?" His oldest brother, Donovan, a former world-class sprinter, told him, "Keep running."
In 2004 Powell ran nine sub-10-second 100s but finished fifth in the Olympic final won by Justin Gatlin, the U.S. runner now serving a four-year ban for a positive steroid test. Powell was injured when Gatlin won the world 100-meter title in '05 and then was beaten by .11 in Osaka last year by Gay. The cumulative effect is that Powell is widely regarded as a fast man who cannot win big races.
His coach, former discus thrower Stephen Francis, says, "We're trying to help Asafa cope better with pressure. We've also tried to adapt his training to deal with the second day of races at major championships; major championships are not about the fastest man, but about the best man after four races in two days. That's a very different thing. Asafa has always had trouble on the second day."
Eating dinner at Redbones Blues Café, an upscale restaurant in Kingston, on May 24, Powell said, "That Osaka race, I never watch it. It's like an accident. In some past years I haven't been good about training; this year I have. Now I just try to keep running fast."
In the off-season Gay faced a major decision: Retain former Olympic sprinter Jon Drummond, whom Gay calls his "consultant" (Gay began working with him in the spring of 2007), or return to his longtime coach Lance Brauman, who had been released from prison in September after a one-year sentence for embezzlement, theft and mail fraud.
The dilemma tested Gay's loyalty and his competitiveness, and in the end he spent the winter in Orlando with Brauman before moving to Arlington, Texas, on April 2 to train permanently with Drummond. "It's lonely in Texas," said Gay, after a spring workout. "But it's all business here, and this is what I need."
He was fit when Bolt trounced him in New York City, and was jolted by that defeat. "That race made us work harder," says Drummond. The injury in Eugene was a bigger hurdle. "There's no such thing as a minor injury five weeks before the Olympic Games," says four-time Olympic medalist Ato Boldon.
Six days after the injury Gay went ahead with plans to move his training base to Germany, and 11 days after the strain he jogged lightly for the first time. "It feels better, but I still have tightness in the hamstring," he said that night. "That works on a sprinter's nerves."
Not only must Gay find the courage to trust his body again, but he must also fully come to terms with his fall from gold medal favorite to gold medal hope, a metamorphosis that could be deflating or freeing. "I've been getting better with the mental part of it," he said. "I just have to stay confident that I'll be 100 percent."
The Olympic 100 is Bolt's race to lose. He has run faster than any man in history and has made it look easy. Strategies to beat him are being debated. "We know how Bolt runs when he gets in front," says Boldon. "But he's not a great starter; in the world-record race, he had the start of his life. To beat him, somebody has to get in front and put pressure on him."
Bailey agrees, to a point. "For Tyson or Asafa to beat Usain, they would need to have a flawless start and a flawless acceleration phase and still stay relaxed," he says. "You know he's coming, and even if you get one meter ahead -- even two meters ahead -- he can make that up in three or four strides."
The pressure of being the favorite to win the planet's biggest sprint event has shifted. Bolt is not only expected to win the race, he's expected to win it spectacularly. It is a new experience for him.
For that reason his handlers would not acknowledge in mid-July that Bolt would run both the 100 and the 200 in Beijing. (At a July 13 meet in Athens he blew away the field in the 200 with the year's fastest time: 19.67.) "We're not even there," said Mills. "No decision yet." It's an absurd statement, of course, a silly dodge designed to deflect attention. But for Gay and Powell, it is a tiny slice of hope.