Bolt heads Jamaican express speeding to Beijing

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The Independent Online

The annual meeting at Crystal Palace is traditionally one which instils in athletes a sense of sinking dread or vivid optimism before the major sporting festival of the summer. With the Beijing Olympics due to start in just 11 days, the London Grand Prix sent its usual quota of runners and jumpers heading towards China with polar extremes of emotion.

The awesomely powerful 200 metres victory earned at something less than full capacity on Saturday by Usain Bolt served notice that the man who broke the world 100m record in May has the capacity to earn at least one Olympic gold medal without even pushing himself.

After crossing the line in a British all-comers' record of 19.76 seconds, having eased down over the last 15 metres, Bolt stuck to his position on whether he will double up in the sprints in China, insisting that the decision remains with his coach, Glen Mills. "I would definitely like to double," Bolt said, "but my coach hasn't made a bad decision in five years and, if he says I can only do one, I'll do one."

The shorter sprint will clearly be more of a challenge to the 21-year-old, given the resurgent form of his fellow Jamaican, Asafa Powell, who won Friday's 100m in the same stadium without undue exertion three days after he had bettered Bolt at the distance in Stockholm.

Bolt knows that he will also need to factor in the double world champion Tyson Gay, even though the American conveniently decided to nurse a dodgy hamstring rather than line up against Powell in London.

Exactly how Bolt's Olympic challenge will work out is still unclear. What is certain, however, is that Jamaica are likely to dominate the sprints in Beijing, partly through the talents of these men and their only marginally slower colleagues who will make up a formidable relay team, but also through athletes such as Veronica Campbell, the Olympic 200m champion, who narrowly defeated her compatriot Shelly-Ann Fraser to win the 100m on the Crystal Palace track.

In the unlikely event that Bolt restricts himself to emulating the feat of his fellow Jamaican, Don Quarrie, winner of the 1976 Olympic 200m title, there seems a strong likelihood that he could break the world record of 19.32sec set by Michael Johnson in winning at the 1996 Atlanta Games.

When Johnson crossed the line on that muggy night in Georgia, his face distorted with a rare display of emotion, every observer imagined that this would be a standard to endure for as many years in the record books as Bob Beamon's prodigious long jump in the thin air of Mexico at the 1968 Games. Beamon's mark lasted 23 years; Johnson's is now under real threat just 12 years later. Such is the prodigious progress made by an athlete who was the youngest-ever world junior champion at the age of 15.

While Bolt, Campbell and Powell – the latter having recovered from a chest injury which delayed his start to the season, as well as a groin strain that checked his recovery – stride on towards the Olympics, their sense of rising confidence is mirrored in a group of British athletes who enjoyed a profitable weekend in south London.

Martyn Rooney, from Croydon, made the most of a challenging race on his home track as he broke 45 seconds in the 400m for the first time, winning in 44.83sec. His breakthrough was reminiscent of that achieved by fellow 400m runner Tim Benjamin in this meeting three years ago, when another sub-45sec time set the Welshman up for a challenge that took him to the World Championship final in Helsinki later that summer.

Rooney offered evidence that he was ready to take a big step forward last month when he won the European Cup 400m title in Annecy before producing an extraordinary effort in the relay, weaving past opponents in the home straight like a motorcycle dodging through rush-hour traffic.

"That was perfect," Rooney said after his win on Saturday. "I'm the local boy and it's great to run a PB here. I've been in this shape all season and I needed to get in a race where I was going to be challenged.

"I knew it was coming," he added. "If I don't make the final at the Olympics now, it'll be a bad championships. If I get a good lane in the final, who knows?"

Another home runner whose ambitions have been extended is the 800m runner Marilyn Okoro, who earned her reward for following the pacemaker in Saturday's race as she hung on along the final 300m to set a personal best of 1min 58.45sec, putting her fourth on the all-time British list.

The French and politics graduate from Bath University could also perform to telling effect as a member of the 400m relay squad. Friday night's 400m saw a 1-2-3 finish for the three leading Brits – world champion, Christine Ohuruogu, world silver medallist, Nicola Sanders and former European bronze medallist, Lee McConnell. The women's relay could yet provide rich pickings for Team GB.

Another of Britain's Olympic medal contenders, Kelly Sotherton, also came away with confidence enhanced after winning a four-event challenge which included a huge personal best of 6.79m in the long jump.Happily, there were no ill effects from the farcical first attempt at running the 100m hurdles on Friday night, when a misplaced rank of barriers threw the field into comic confusion.

There were capital gains, too, for the long jumper Greg Rutherford, who returned from long-term injury earlier this month to win the Olympic trials in a qualifying mark of 8.20m and earned victory here in 8.16m.

Naturally, there were domestic athletes for whom the occasion was less than ideal, notably the long jumper Chris Tomlinson, who had to withdraw midway through the event with what looked like a twisted ankle, although cramp was later diagnosed. Mo Farah will also be in a thoughtful mood, having managed only sixth place in the 3,000m.

The sprinters, Craig Pickering and Tyrone Edgar, who will contest the individual event along with Simeon Williamson, will be less than ecstatic at their showings. Edgar failed to make Friday's 100m final and, although Pickering did manage to become the sole home sprinter involved, he was dissatisfied with his showing after finishing last.

But for the 400m hurdler Rick Yates there was nothing but bittersweet frustration. The 22-year-old, who was not selected for the British team despite the fact that he could have gone forward as a sole representative, having earned a B standard qualifier, duly earned the A standard mark by running a personal best of 49.06sec. Sadly for him and all those who supported him on a Facebook petition, the deadline has already passed.

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