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.