x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Bolt-Blake rivalry set stage for a repeat of '88

The number of sub-10 second aspirants for London have made the 100m race reminiscent of Seoul Games.

It will not be easy for Usain Bolt, left, at this Olympics with Yohan Blake, second right, and others capable of running under 10 seconds.
It will not be easy for Usain Bolt, left, at this Olympics with Yohan Blake, second right, and others capable of running under 10 seconds.

A couple of unusual images have surfaced over the last few days from Kingston's National Stadium, where Jamaica's Olympic trials were being held.

In one, Usain Bolt is grimacing - actually grimacing, lips apart, teeth gritted - and striving, and if there is one thing Bolt has been great at not showing, it has been any sign of striving.

He could even be looking to one side in resignation, or at least deep frustration. In another, he is mouthing an indeterminate "whooh", either at the effort he has just expended or maybe at what has just happened to him.

The pictures come from his two losses in three days to his friend, foe and fellow Jamaican Yohan Blake, first over 100 metres and then, more stunningly, over Bolt's first and preferred discipline, the 200m.

In all of them Bolt looks nothing like the Bolt we are accustomed to seeing, of the bling celebratory poses, the winning smile, or the definitive Bolt image: yards ahead, alone, looking around to see how far ahead before he has even crossed the line.

Bolt has not been an arrogant figure, even if some of his celebrations are perceived to be. But he can cut the kind of preening profile dominant champions often do, wrapped within an underplayed but still assumed air of their own superiority.

He likes to play up how laid-back, even lazy, he is. Those chicken nuggets best describe this persona: "Hey, I eat chicken nuggets like all of you but then I go out and run 100m in 9.58 seconds."

And these pictures are unusual precisely because they make Bolt look a little humbled, a little checked by reality. He made no mention of nuggets after the losses. "I never train for one person," he said.

"Everyone is talking about Yohan Blake and he is proving himself as one of the greatest. But, for me, it's going back to training, getting back to work to and getting done what I've got to get done."

That he lost twice to Blake can only be a good thing for sprinting.

It is not as if Blake is some random young struggler.

He is the reigning 100m world champion and the man who Bolt himself identified in 2008 as the next big thing.

It means that this summer's 100m event at the London Olympics will be among the most feverishly anticipated for years and not just because this pair will likely go head-to-head.

There is serious competition at hand beyond them. The third Jamaican, Asafa Powell, will probably be there, as will the US pair of Tyson Gay and Justin Gatlin, the former returned from serious injuries, the latter from a doping ban.

Bolt, Gay, Powell and Blake have run the four fastest 100m times ever and Gatlin has the seventh-fastest. So strong could be that field that some, like the former world champion Kim Collins, from St Kitts and Nevis, believe eight men could run under 10 seconds during the final in London.

A few races have seen six men run under 10 seconds, including the 2008 Beijing Olympics final and the 1991 World Championships but what London could emulate, at least in the excitement it creates in the run-up, is the 100m final at the Seoul Olympics in 1988.

Sure the race was retrospectively tainted, and not just by Ben Johnson's positive test for the banned steroid stanozolol.

Over time, as many as six of the eight in that field were implicated in doping; only Calvin Smith and Robson da Silva were not.

But for spectacle and an event waiting to happen, it was unparalleled. It hung largely around the rivalry between Johnson and Lewis, which was essentially professional but obviously so personal. Johnson, who ran to break records, had by then built an edge over Lewis, who ran to win medals.

Lewis's ultimately distracted run, unbelieving as to what was happening ahead, is one of the great sub-themes of that race.

The field, including Linford Christie, Dennis Mitchell and Smith, was incredibly strong.

Four ran under 10 seconds and even if it swiftly turned from the greatest race ever to the dirtiest one, it was a seminal moment in sprinting, just not in the way we thought or wanted.

London 2012 is now closing in. Despite his losses, it is necessary to be reminded, that Bolt is a man for the big stage.

And this summer he will probably come across the biggest yet.

osamiuddin@thenational.ae

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