Usain Bolt will arrive in Rome next week with the usual fanfare that escorts the fastest man on the planet. Posters for Thursday's track meeting at the Stadio Olimpico and Bolt's first major race of the year show him adorned with a crown and a sceptre in his hand, the latest trappings of his status as sprint royalty.
Whether he maintains the title of sprint king in 2013 is open to conjecture. To date, in his races closer to home, he has been a tad lacklustre. But each season when his form has dipped he has defied his critics on the big stage.
Last summer in London, seven runners lined up to overturn his sprint hegemony in the 100m Olympic final but all came up short as he won in a time of 9.63sec.
The British sprinter Dwain Chambers, who trained with Bolt during the Jamaican's junior years, missed out on the final by just three hundredths of a second with a time of 10.05sec, which last year marked him out as one of Britain's two quickest sprinters, alongside the teenager Adam Gemili.
Chambers has become all too familiar with seeing the back of Bolt, and the question is: can any of the seven also-rans in last year's final catch him? "I think the biggest threat to Bolt is Bolt himself, that's the only thing that might let him down," says Chambers. "It's a question of if he wants it enough. He'll want his 100m world title back [he was disqualified for a false start in the 2011 final in Daegu] and there's the chance to defend his three Olympic titles [100m, 200m and 4 x 100m] again. The only thing stopping him is if he wants it enough. I believe he does."
As for his biggest strength, Chambers says: "He knows he's a tenth or two-tenths of a second quicker than everyone else, and that gives him the confidence on the start line. He acts like he's superior, and with good reason – the results have showed he is that. He just loves being the man."
Yet the chasing pack are slowly closing the gap on Bolt. When he won his first Olympic title in 2008, his winning margin was two-tenths of a second. In London, his advantage over second-placed Yohan Blake was down to little more than a solitary tenth and his fellow Jamaican halved that before the season was out.
Blake, at 23 three years his training partner's junior, has stated his plans to invade Bolt's territory, likening himself to an alien in that quest. There is something extraterrestrial about Bolt's running style, as a relatively lean and incredibly tall – at 6ft 5in – sprinter in a discipline usually dominated by more muscular and powerful runners such as Blake.
Blake, nicknamed "The Beast", has been nursing a hamstring injury from early in the season, but Chambers believes he remains the athlete most likely to catch Bolt.
"First and foremost, Blake has an advantage over everyone else in that he trains every day with the fastest man in the world, and no one else has that," says Chambers. "Most British sprinters train with the fastest man in Europe, the UK or just their borough, and that's a big difference.
"That is such an advantage and I'd say it's a confidence boost. I've not been inside Blake's head so I don't know how he feels each day if he's coming second to Bolt. But he genuinely believes he can beat him and, looking at his times both in the 100m and 200m last season, I'd have to agree. He's such an explosive runner – he bursts out of the blocks like a pocket rocket."
Snapping at the heels of the Jamaican sprint duo are the Americans Justin Gatlin, Tyson Gay and Ryan Bailey, who were third, fourth and fifth respectively last summer.
Chambers believes Gay is the non-Jamaican most likely to upstage Bolt at the World Championships in Moscow in August. "London was interesting for Gay in that he was just edged out of the medals. In something as mentally volatile as sprinting that can either make you or break you. Judging by the times Gay's run [he is the fastest man over 100m this season with a 9.86 set in Kingston last month], you'd have to say it's made him. Added to that, he has the psychological boost that he's beaten Bolt before so he knows he can do it. If he stays fit, he's the next big threat."
Of Gay's strengths, Chambers adds: "What makes him such a threat is he can get up to speed so quickly and maintain that speed for a lot longer than others. His leg cadence, the speed they turn, it's a bit like Wile E. Coyote. Most people get properly up to speed by 50 metres but he achieves it earlier."
Of the other Americans, he says: "Barring injury, Bailey's going to be in all the big finals for years to come. I was looking at his data to see his progression and it's clear he's worked incredibly hard. His strength is that he's tall. In an era when sprinters are getting taller, it's good to have that on your side. He generates his speed from his big frame and he's another one capable of maintaining his speed for a long time."
Completing the American triumvirate is Gatlin, who like Chambers has served a ban in the past for doping. "With his past, he's obviously been working on if and when he can generate people's trust again. He's a great one for fighting talk and saying he'll be the best. It's basically a sprinter's answer to boxers' verbal sparring at the weigh-in.
"I like that he believes he can be the best in the world. You have to do that against Bolt. Gatlin knows how to win, he knows how to run 9.8 and 9.9 consistently, and he's been Olympic champion. He's technically very solid in the way he drives and generates his speed. He's basically the float king, he's in the drive phase longer than anyone for 40 to 50 metres."
For Chambers, the one unknown is another Jamaican, Asafa Powell, who limped home in London with a hamstring injury, the latest in a long line of problems. He believes the former world record-holder could beat Bolt. "He's such a beautiful runner to watch when it's going well. It just flows, the rhythm is great. But I don't know what goes on in major championships, as that style seems to come apart. I don't know if it's in his head."
So one of the seven could beat Bolt this week, but Chambers believes he will still come out on top in Moscow later this summer: "I'd go Bolt first, Blake second and Gay third."
Dwain Chambers is climbing Mont Blanc in September with Dream Guides to raise money for cancer charity Teens Unite. Visit: justgiving.com/dwainchambers
Also rans: Chambers on the 2012 Olympic 100m finalists
2nd: Yohan Blake (Jam) 9.75sec
"My kids love him, the way he lifts those paws and does his roaring at the start. It's comedy, it makes me laugh. I'm very old-school in that I don't do much on the line but it works for him. Once he's on his way he's so explosive."
3rd: Justin Gatlin (US) 9.79sec
"A lot of people in life do wrong and he's gone through that and the process of getting back on track. He has a long, floaty drive phase. For some that would be detrimental, but he has such a sense of timing that it's just right for him."
4th: Tyson Gay (US) 9.80sec
"I sense he's a good guy but he keeps his cards close to his chest. I like that he's quiet at the start; you see all he wants to be is the best athlete possible. He's been running some 400m races to increase his endurance. It'll be interesting to see how that translates."
5th: Ryan Bailey (US) 9.88sec
"He's noticeable as the guy with the all-in-one suit on. You stick to what you're comfortable with and clearly that works for him. I'm not sure it necessarily makes him go faster, but if he feels good in his mind then that's half the battle won."
6th: Churandy Martina (Neth) 9.94sec
"At world level it's a vast stomping ground, you can't watch everyone. I've paid more attention to him as he's Dutch, so he's a European threat. He's been one of the more consistent athletes and had a great season last year."
7th: Richard Thompson (Tri) 9.98sec
"I know him well. He's so elusive – you never see him at the warm-up track and then suddenly, bam, he's there at the start. He's another tall, finesse, floating runner, and he gets his arms up so high in the early drive phase."
8th: Asafa Powell (Jam) 11.99sec
"I trained with him last year and he's a really cool guy, and would turn up to training in a different sports car every day while I'd desperately get a lift from someone! When his body stays together, it's one of the great sights."Reuse content