Clean pair of heels: Fast Show under the spotlight

The fastest men in history run at Crystal Palace as part of their Olympics build-up, knowing that the sport is in desperate need of a 100m final free from the spectre of drugs. Simon Turnbull reports
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The Independent Online

Usain Bolt and Asafa Powell might be the two fastest men ever on terra firma but on the choppy Thames yesterday they were treading water somewhat. The pair arrived by speedboat at the Queen Elizabeth Pier, the jetty outside the hedgehog outline of the 02 Arena – the Millennium Dome that was – some 25 minutes behind schedule. At least they made it, though – proudly flying a Jamaican flag.

Tyson Gay, the third-fastest 100m runner of all time, was supposed to be with them to publicise the trio's scheduled appearance in the London Grand Prix, which this year has been extended over two days at Crystal Palace, tonight and tomorrow afternoon. Sadly, the American who achieved the 100 metres-200 metres sprint double at the World Championships in Osaka last summer, was not among the party which made its way up the ramp and into the lounge next to the Tutankhamun exhibition. He was stuck at a clinic in Munich, undergoing treatment to the hamstring problem that struck him in the 200m preliminaries at the US Olympic trials in Eugene four weeks ago, all swathed in bandages perhaps.

It remains to be seen whether Gay will be on the start line for the first round 100m heats at the Bird's Nest Stadium in Beijing three weeks today – and whether the 25-year-old from Kentucky will have got sufficient speed back into his tank to prevent Jamaican sporting history in the making. For all of the Caribbean isle's rich sprinting tradition, no speed merchant wearing the yellow, green and black has ever claimed the blue-riband prize on the Olympic track-and-field programme: the gold medal in the men's 100m.

Bolt arrived in London shrugging his shoulders and maintaining that he was still unsure whether he would even be going for it in the Chinese capital, saying that his coach, Glen Mills, would leave it "until the last possible moment" before giving him a green light to contest the short sprint as well as the 200m, the distance he has always favoured. Having blitzed to a time of 9.72sec at Randall's Island in New York on 31 May, breaking Powell's world record by 0.02sec, it seems inconceivable that the 6ft 5in beanpole predictably known as "the Lightning Bolt" will not be attempting to strike again in the 100m.

Still, above all other considerations, there is an overriding need for Bolt, Powell or Gay, or whoever else might emerge as the showpiece victor in Beijing, to strike a blow for natural talent in the fast lane. Three of the last five winners of the men's 100m in the Olympic arena have failed drugs tests: Ben Johnson, who enjoyed a short-lived, steroid-fuelled triumph in Seoul in 1988; Britain's Linford Christie, who prevailed in Barcelona in 1992 and tested positive for nandrolone seven years later; and Justin Gatlin, who won in Athens four years ago and has twice been snared in the drugs net. Two of the last four holders of the men's 100m world record have been subsequently unveiled as frauds: Gatlin and his fellow American, Tim Montgomery.

Montgomery, whose 9.78sec run in Paris in 2002 was fuelled by the products of the same Californian drugs factory that boosted Britain's Dwain Chambers, is currently serving a four-year jail sentence for cheque fraud. He is awaiting further punishment after pleading guilty to dealing in heroin. His former partner, Marion Jones, the second-fastest woman of all time (behind the late Florence Griffith-Joyner) also happens to be behind bars. She is serving a six month sentence for furnishing federal prosecutors in the United States with false information.

Earlier this week she appealed for a pardon to George W Bush, the soon-to-be-outgoing US president – a pardon for selling her sport down a river as nose-pinchingly rank in odour as the Thames was at north Greenwich yesterday.

Powell, who finished behind the victorious Gatlin in the 100m in the Athens Olympics four years ago, and who also shared his old world-record time of 9.77sec with the tainted American, said earlier this summer that jail sentences ought to be considered for those who cheated. "They should be given the impression they're going to jail if they do it," Powell maintained yesterday. "A lot of these athletes, they do it – they know it's illegal – and they're pretty much robbing the other athletes who are working hard all year. Two years from the sport and they're back. It's not a punishment.

"If I'm an athlete who thinks like that, I come into the sport, make as much money as I can before I get caught, then I get the two years and come back and I do the same thing again. That's how these athletes are thinking. They're really robbing the athletes of money and glory.

"Drugs have been in the sport long before I was born, so I can't change it. I don't know what it looks like, what it tastes like or how you feel when you take it. I have no idea. A lot of people ask me why wouldn't I take drugs. I want to test myself. I've run 9.74sec without taking drugs and I want to know how fast I can run without taking it. I want to push myself to the limit to see how fast a human can run without taking drugs."

A lot of people these past two months have asked Bolt not so much whether he would consider taking drugs as whether he had actually done so to push the human speed limit to a new boundary. Now 21, the former teenage phenomenon in the 200m was asked yesterday whether he could reassure a sceptical world that the men's 100m in Beijing would be a clean contest. "I know I'll be clean," he replied. "I'm hoping everybody in the field will be clean; I'm sure of that. I'm not sure about the rest of the field. I can only speak for myself. It's up to the athletes to stay clean and stay focused. If you want something, if you work hard enough you'll get there. I don't think you have to cheat to get there, because I'm doing it. I'm staying clean and I'm doing good. I think the sport is going back that way because a lot of people are starting to do well without taking drugs."

There is indeed a great deal riding on the nine and three-quarters-of-a-second that will decide the men's 100m final in Beijing on Saturday 16 August. If Bolt's world-record run installed him as favourite, there was something of a jolt for him when Powell beat him to the line in Stockholm on Tuesday night, albeit by 0.01sec. The compatriots will be kept apart at Crystal Palace. Powell contests the 100m tonight, Bolt the 200m tomorrow afternoon.

By nature, both are characteristically Caribbean, so laid-back they could almost be limbo-merchants. "I'm like this all time," Bolt said, as he tackled every question put his way – even those spiked with the dreaded D word – without a ruffling of his sang-froid. "This is me. I'm laid-back. I stay home much of the time and play video games, just chill out with my friends."

Powell was the more serious of the two yesterday – and with reason. Having failed to fulfil golden expectation in Athens four years ago and at the World Championships in Osaka last summer – and also lost the coveted "World's Fastest Man" mantle to his young countryman – the 25-year-old conceded that he had something to prove. "I have one goal in Beijing: to win the gold medal," he said. "If Usain says he is going to run the 100m, I'm not going to say, 'Damn, I'm not going to get the gold medal.' I'm going there for the gold medal. A lot of people are saying, 'Asafa is dead; Asafa can't run fast.' I can run fast, and I can run faster. When I ran 9.74sec [to break his old world record on Italian soil in Rieti last September] it felt like I had run 10 seconds flat."

If Bolt is alongside him in the final in Beijing, and Gay is back firing on all cylinders, it might well take a quicker time than 9.74sec to bring home the gold – a gold that has become something of a holy grail back in Jamaica. Three sprinters born on the island have managed to claim it, but all for their adopted countries: Johnson, briefly, for Canada in 1988; Christie for Great Britain in 1992; and Donovan Bailey for Canada in 1996. History beckons.

Gold rush: Jamaican pair have the world at their feet

Asafa Powell

Age: 25

Nationality: Jamaican

Weight: 88kg

Height: 190cm

Fastest 100m time: 9.74 seconds, on 9 September 2007 in Rieti, Italy

Other Facts

*Powell is the only man to have run legally under 10sec 12 times in a single season.

He held the world record in the 100m sprint between June 2005 and May 2008, with times of 9.77sec and 9.74sec.

Powell planned to be a mechanic before he took up running.

*He is the youngest of six brothers born to parents who are both pastors.

One of his brothers, Donovan, was a semi-finalist in the 100 metres at the 1999 World Championships, before dying of a heart attack in 2003.

Usain Bolt

Age: 21

Nationality: Jamaican

Weight: 76kg

Height: 193cm

Fastest 100m time: 9.72sec (WR), 31 May 2008 in New York

Fastest 200m time: 19.67sec, July 2008 in Athens

Other Facts

*Considers himself a 200m specialist, despite holding 100m world record.

When he broke the 100m world record it was only his 5th senior run over the distance.

In 2004 he ran 200m in 19.93sec, becoming the first ever junior to break the 20-second mark.

Son of grocery store owners Wellesley and Jennifer Bolt.

At 2007 Jamaican Championships he ran 19.75sec to break the 36-year-old national record held by Don Quarrie.

Jamaica's world class sprinters

Sanya Richards

Born: 26 February 1985

Olympic Performance: 1 medal - Athens '04, 4x400m relay gold. 400m favourite in Beijing.

Veronica Campbell-Brown

Born: 15 May 1982

Olympic Performance: 4 medals - Sydney '00, 4x100m relay silver. Athens '04, 200m gold, 4x100m relay gold, 100m bronze.

Donald Quarrie

Born: 25 February 1951

Olympic Performance: 4 medals - Montreal '76, 200m gold & 100m silver. Moscow '80, 200m bronze. Los Angeles '84, 4x100m relay silver.

Merlene Ottey

Born: 10 May 1960

Olympic Performance: 9 medals - Moscow '80 200m bronze, Los Angeles '84 100m & 200m bronze, Barcelona '92 200m bronze, Atlanta '96 100m & 200m silver & 4 x 100m relay bronze, Sydney '00 4 x 100m relay silver. Since 2002, Ottey has represented Slovenia.

Arthur Wint

Born: 25 May 1920

Died: 19 October 1992

Olympic Performance: 4 medals - London '48 400m gold & 800m silver. Helsinki '52 4 x 400m relay gold & 800m silver.