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Posted: Wednesday July 23, 2008 12:29PM; Updated: Wednesday July 23, 2008 12:29PM
Tim Layden Tim Layden >

The Phenom

The record holder and the world champion were set to duel for the Olympic 100 meters title. Then along came 6' 5" Usain Bolt, previously a specialist in the 200, who blew past everyone

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Unlike Powell, who has come up short in big races, and Gay, who's getting over an injury, Bolt (above) has no prerace concerns.
Unlike Powell, who has come up short in big races, and Gay, who's getting over an injury, Bolt (above) has no prerace concerns.
Walter Iooss Jr./SI

The Beijing games beckoned, far in the distance, as three sprinters aligned themselves last winter for a run at the grandest title in track and field -- Olympic 100-meter champion. They had clearly defined roles: the favorite, the record holder, the upstart.

Tyson Gay of the U.S. was the reigning world champion in the 100 and would be center stage for the upcoming season. "New responsibility," he said.

Asafa Powell of Jamaica had the world record, having run the 100 in 9.74 seconds last September in Rieti, Italy -- but only after he had been beaten decisively by Gay in the World Track and Field Championships two weeks earlier in Osaka, Japan. Powell had been favored going into the worlds, and after his third-place finish a nasty word circulated in the track underground: choker. "We all heard what people were saying about Asafa, and he heard it too," said Bruce James, president of Powell's MVP Track Club in Kingston. "It was unfair, but Asafa was down and disappointed."

Usain Bolt, another Jamaican, had long been a prodigy in the 200 meters, but last summer he made good on a deal with his coach, a grumpy, 59-year-old islander named Glen Mills. "I wanted to run the 100, not just the 200," says Bolt. "My coach told me if I broke the national record for the 200, I could run a 100." After Bolt ran the 200 in 19.75 seconds to break Donald Quarrie's 36-year-old Jamaican record by .11, Mills acceded; in July of 2007, Bolt ran his first professional 100 meters in a promising 10.03. He was smitten: In 2008 Bolt would for the first time train for the glamour race.

Yet the sprinters' roles would not last. In early April, Powell injured his right shoulder lifting weights in Kingston and had surgery in Miami to reattach damaged tendons. He missed several weeks of training, didn't race until June and then tweaked his right groin at a July meet in Rome.

While Powell was recovering from the shoulder injury, Bolt stunned all of track by running the 100 in 9.76 seconds -- second in history only to Powell's record -- at a May 3 meet in Kingston. That was just a prelude. On May 31 Bolt humbled Gay and ran a world-record 9.72 at the Reebok Grand Prix in New York City. The performance inspired talk of athletic evolution; Bolt is 6' 5", the tallest world-class sprinter in history. "It looked like his knees were going past my face," said the 5' 11" Gay.

More than that, Bolt made it look easy. "In that race," says 1996 Olympic gold medalist Donovan Bailey, "it almost seemed like Usain had another turbo gear that he hadn't unleashed yet. Like it was a 120-meter race." Suddenly the sprint world was chasing a new leader.

Gay seemed to be gaining on Bolt when he broke the U.S. record with a 9.77 in the quarterfinals of the Olympic trials on June 28 in Eugene, Ore., and a day later when he ran a wind-aided 9.68 to win the final. But while running the turn in the trials' 200-meter quarterfinals on July 5, Gay went down with a hamstring strain.

Now the sprinters' roles were redefined: The favorite was an uncertainty, the record holder had lost his way, the upstart was a prodigy in the 100 meters as well.

Bolt's first love was cricket. "I was a good fast bowler," he says. He was raised with a brother and sister by his parents Jennifer and Wellesley Bolt in the parish of Trelawny, on the north shore of Jamaica, historically significant because it was the center of the slave trade on the island, aesthetically significant for its spectacular ocean views. Children there would go to the resort areas of Montego Bay and Ocho Rios for fun.

By the time he was 10, Bolt was running on his school team. In 2002, his senior year at William Knibb High, he won the Jamaican high school titles in the 200 and 400 meters and that summer became the youngest junior world champion in history, winning the 200 in Kingston a month shy of his 16th birthday. In '03 and '04 he set world junior records for the 200.

Shortly after Bolt turned pro in 2004, Mills became his coach and tried to push him to use his long stride in the 400. "But he didn't have any interest in doing the work for the 400," says Mills. The 100 was a different story. Once freed to work on aspects of the shorter race, Bolt spent last winter weight training harder than ever and practicing starts. "He got bigger and stronger," says Mills. "He trained more diligently in practice. When he began running, the times were no surprise."

Like Powell, Bolt lives and trains in Jamaica. He was offered track scholarships by several U.S. colleges but declined. "This is where I'm comfortable," he says. "I can't live outside Jamaica." His house is a short drive from the training track next to the national stadium in Kingston, and he makes the commute in his Honda Accord.

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