Athletics: King of the track puts on regal show at Palace

Electric Bolt shows golden form by blitzing 200m field with the fastest time ever seen in Britain. By Simon Turnbull
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The Independent Online

There has been many a regal performance down the years at this celebrated sporting Palace in the southern suburbs of London. It was on the site, in the Crystal Palace arena of old, that WG Grace contrived to win a 440 yards hurdles race in a National Olympian Association meeting while officially on fielding duty at The Oval. It was also where the New Zealand All Blacks first showed their colours on the international rugby union stage, steamrolling the All Whites of England back in 1905.

In more recent times, since being rebuilt as a track and field arena, the place has witnessed the world record-breaking wonders of Ron Clarke and David Bedford, plus the audacity of Steve Ovett waving to the gallery en route to his customary victory. There has surely been no more majestic sight, though, than that of Usain Bolt, the fastest man in history, striking like... well, like a Bolt of lightning around half the oval of the Crystal Palace track.

On the second day of the Aviva London Grand Prix, there was a string of impressive displays by emerging Brits – Martyn Rooney smashing through the 45-second barrier in the 400m and Marilyn Okoro climbing to fourth place on the UK all-time ranking list in the women's 800m plus a couple of tweaks for Beijing-bound British hopefuls (thankfully, both Kelly Sotherton and Chris Tomlinson suffered no serious damage).

In this fine-tuner of a meet before the Olympic Games open for business on Friday week, though, the breath was temporarily taken away by the vision of Bolt blitzing the field in the men's 200m. The nominal field that is.

As soon as the gun fired, the unlikely 6ft 5in beanpole of a speed merchant was in a race of his own, surging clear round the bend and pulling so far ahead that he twice turned to his right midway up the home straight. He could have given an Ovett wave and still won at a canter. The 21-year-old Jamaican phenomenon was actually glancing over his right shoulder to check if there was anyone else actually running. Wallace Spearmon got the closest, finishing second in 20.27sec. And the American is no slouch, with a couple of World Championship medals among his possessions.

The frightening thing was that Bolt stopped the trackside clock at 19.76sec with something patently still left in the tank. "Yeah, I kind of backed off a little," he conceded. Backed off and still recorded the fastest 200m time ever seen in Britain, that is. The previous fastest was set by Tyson Gay, the American who took the World Championship 200m title ahead of Bolt in Osaka last summer. He clocked 19.84sec at Crystal Palace two years ago, running flat out.

Bolt has run quicker at the distance he still regards as his sprinting speciality, despite the 9.72sec 100m world record he set at Randall's Island in New York on 31 May. In Athens two weeks ago he lowered his 200m personal best to 19.67sec. The stunning world record Michael Johnson established at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, 19.32sec, is some way off yet. Then again, as Johnson himself said recently of the burgeoning Bolt: "I'm ready to kiss it goodbye if he keeps on doing what he's doing."

On this evidence, the young man from Jamaica's Trelawny parish could possibly get within kissing distance in Beijing. Certainly, the clock in the Bird's Nest Stadium is likely to be his only serious rival in the 200m. It will be different in the 100m, assuming Bolt is granted permission to pit himself against Asafa Powell, the countryman whose world record he eclipsed in May, and Gay, who will be absent from the 200m in the Chinese capital. Asked when his coach, Glen Mills, might give the green light to contest the shorter event as well as the 200m, Bolt said: "He told me it will be at the last possible moment. I don't know when that will be. I definitely want to double in Beijing, but my coach hasn't made any bad decision all the time I've been with him, so if he says I'm doing one event then I'm doing one event."

Bolt's blistering run set the tone for some lively action yesterday following a somewhat flat opening programme on Friday. Thankfully, the Beijing-bound Britons were among those who were inspired, none more so than the richly talented Mr Rooney. The 21-year-old is a student at Loughborough University but he runs for Croydon Harriers and his family home remains in the town. Roared on by a huge contingent of friends and family, the local boy came good, finishing a clear winner of the 400m and lowering his personal best from 45.19sec to 44.83sec. "To do this on my home track is just perfect," he said.

Okoro was no less impressive a winner of the women's 800m. The Shaftesbury Barnet Harrier has struck a rich vein of form and, pushing the pace from the front yesterday, she was rewarded with a lifetime best of 1min 58.45sec, climbing to fourth place on the UK all-time ranking list, behind Kelly Holmes, Kirsty Wade and Becky Lyne.

There were also notable runners-up performances by Goldie Sayers in the javelin (with a world-class 63.82m) and Rick Yates in the 400m hurdles (with a personal best of 49.06sec) – plus a win for Sotherton in the four-event challenge that was specially arranged to prepare her for the heptathlon in Beijing.

The Commonwealth champion hurt an adductor muscle in attempting to clear the third row of barriers that were out of position in the 100m hurdles on Friday night but still managed to throw 14.36m in the shot and clock 23.63sec in the 200m yesterday, showing she is fighting fit for Beijing.

"My doctor and my physiotherapist both told me not to run today," Sotherton confided, "but I wanted to. To get that 200m time is really encouraging." Not that it was quite in the Lightning Bolt class.

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