100m showdown: No Bolt from blue but he can be star of fast show
Jamaican hero will push the speed limit when three musketeers meet in Beijing
It is five years now since time stood still on a balmy summer evening at Crystal Palace. The trackside clock had suffered a malfunction and the winner of the men's 100m in the London Grand Prix meeting was half-way round a victory lap when the scoreboard flashed up: "1. D Chambers 9.53 world record."
Swift though Dwain Chambers had been down the home straight, nobody believed that the Londoner had advanced the 100m world record by a quarter of a second; his winning time was subsequently amended to a rough estimate of 10.0sec.
A lot of steroids have flowed under the track-and-field bridge since that August night in 2003 – in such volume, in fact, that those sprinters who have genuinely been pushing back the human speed limit have been confronted by cynical disbelief in the validity of their deeds.
Usain "Lightning" Bolt, the 21-year-old 6ft 5in beanpole from Jamaica who lowered the 100m world record to 9.72sec at Randall's Island in New York on 31 May, can expect the same kind of interrogation that he endured during his country's Olympic trials in Kingston three weeks ago when he arrives in England this week for the Aviva London Grand Prix at Crystal Palace on Friday and Saturday.
Still sweating from his efforts at trackside, he was confronted by a BBC Television news reporter asking: "Have you ever taken performance-enhancing drugs?" "No," Bolt said, "never will." So what was it that made him good enough to break the world record, the interviewer demanded. "Talent," he replied.
Such is the legacy of the drug-charged speed merchants who have tarnished the name of track and field: not so much the finger of suspicion as the heavy hand of it. It could hardly be otherwise, given the level of chemical dabbling that has bedevilled life in the fast lane. After all, three of the past five Olympic men's 100m champions have failed drug tests: Ben Johnson, Linford Christie and Justin Gatlin. And the American who was the holder of the 100m world record back in 2003, Tim Montgomery, has since confessed to having been fuelled by the same Californian laboratory as Chambers.
What the sharp end of track and field so desperately needs is a clean break. The hope is that Bolt can provide it, with the help of the other two high-speed musketeers who have been fighting for the mantle of "the fastest man on Earth". All three will be at Crystal Palace for a final speed test before the Beijing Olympics.
Tyson Gay, the 25-year-old American who won the World Championships 100m and 200m titles in Osaka last summer (and who clocked an invalid wind-assisted 9.68sec for 100m at the US trials in Eugene three weeks ago), runs in the 100m on Friday night. So does Asafa Powell, the 25-year-old Jamaican who held the world record at 9.74sec before Bolt's New York run. Bolt runs in the 200m on Saturday.
Bolt's emergence at the top of the 100m tree this summer has come as a surprise, given that he has always been a 200m specialist. It does not fit the headline of being a "Bolt from the Blue" though. Indeed, the phenomenon of the young Jamaican speed merchant was featured in these pages back in August 2003. "Remember the name," we said at the time. "You are likely to hear a lot more of it."
Bolt had already won the world junior (under-20) 200m crown at the age of 15, and in 2004 he set a world junior record for the distance, 19.93sec. After that, his progress foundered on a combination of injury and partying, although last summer there was tangible evidence that his huge talent was starting to be realised under the guidance of the coach Glen Mills. Bolt ran 19.86sec for 200m, eclipsing the Jamaican record held by the great Don Quarrie, winner of the event at the Montreal Olympics in 1976. He also took the 200m silver medal behind Gay at the World Championships in Osaka.
The 100m world record has come as a result of knuckling down to Mills' regime and turning to the shorter event to hone his raw speed and improve his start for the longer event. "I have matured a lot," Bolt said. "I'm more serious now. I have done more training – more technical stuff, like my start – and I have gone to the gym more. I've done less partying, too. I still go out, but less often."
Whether Bolt will be in a position to party after the 100m final in Beijing remains to be seen. His coach has yet to give him the green light to contest both sprint events in the Chinese capital. "We're leaning towards deciding that I may be doubling up but we're not sure as yet," Bolt said. "Despite the fact that I have been mainly running 100m this season, I still see the 200m as my best distance."
It is the 100m, though, that happens to be the Olympic blue riband event, and for all of Jamaica's rich sprinting tradition, the Caribbean isle has never managed to claim it. There have been Jamaican-born winners who struck gold for other countries: Ben Johnson, for Canada in 1988; Linford Christie, for Britain in 1992; and Donovan Bailey, for Canada in 1996.
So a place in the history books awaits the Lightning Bolt, the young man from the town named after the former Cornish governor of Jamaica, Sir William Trelawny, and whose training group, back in 2006, welcomed Dwain Chambers into their fold when the Briton first returned from his drugs ban.
"I will run against anybody," Bolt said, when asked about racing against doping offenders. "It does not matter to me what other people do as long as I stay clean and do my best. I try to lead by example."
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