For someone who was the fastest man in the world in 2010 – too quick even for Usain Bolt when they fought their one high-speed duel of the year, over 100m at the Diamond League meeting in Stockholm in August – Tyson Gay was not exactly swift to look on the bright side of life as he sat on the sixth floor of a Manchester office block yesterday, contemplating his first race of this pre-Olympic season.
For one thing, as the American speed merchant was swift to acknowledge, Gay knows that whatever he achieves tomorrow afternoon in the 150m at the Powerade GreatCity Games will be inevitably measured against the world best time, 14.35sec, that Bolt set for the rarely run distance on the same specially erected raised track on Deansgate two years ago. For another, he will be chasing the clock while cursing an injury and some way less than fully fit.
"I've got a little bit of a hip abductor problem," Gay revealed. "It's been on and off. In the last four weeks I've only had a few days' training, so maybe I'm only 80 per cent fit. I'm used to having problems but I'm tired of it."
For the man from Kentucky – the home state of Muhammad Ali – such physical travails have become part of the job. When you're trying to push your body as fast as the Lightning Bolt, the strain is going to take its toll. It's an occupational hazard for the second fastest man in history – whose US record for the 100m, 9.69sec, stands in the shadow of the freakish world record of 9.58sec that Bolt established at the 2009 World Championships in Berlin.
"It's fair to say that," Gay – a quietly spoken, thoughtful soul – acknowledged.
It would also be fair to say that the 28-year-old Kentuckian is confident of getting the better of his 24-year-old Jamaican rival when Bolt comes to defend his global 100m and 200m crowns at the 2011 World Championships in Daegu, South Korea, in August and at the Olympic Games in London next year – if Gay can get his finely-tuned 5ft 11in frame to the start line fully intact and in smooth working order.
"Deep down, do I feel if I'm 100 per cent I can beat Usain Bolt?" he said, pondering the question. "Absolutely. Yeah, I do. But I haven't been fully fit since 2006. I haven't had one year when I've been totally fit. I'm my own biggest rival."
Back in 2007 Gay could afford to be less than 100 per cent fit and still complete a 100m-200m sprint double at the World Championships in Osaka. Bolt took the silver medal behind him at the longer distance but it was not until 2008 that the beanpole Jamaican emerged as a world record-wrecking phenomenon. Gay's Olympic challenge that year was ruined by a hamstring injury; he ran in the 100m in Beijing but exited at the semi-final stage.
In 2009 Gay was hampered by a groin problem that eventually required surgery. And last summer he struggled with knee and hamstring injuries. Not many people were quick to mention that fact when he prevailed in Stockholm, finishing 0.13sec ahead of an ailing Bolt in 9.84sec. His nemesis cut short his own injury-plagued track season and underwent treatment for a back problem, saying: "If anyone was going to beat me it was going to be this year. This was my easy season."
"What he said didn't irritate me," Gay insisted yesterday. "In his position, he had to say that. People thought nobody would ever beat him, so I understand why he said it. It was an off year [with no global outdoor championships] and his off year is more relaxing."
While Gay gets ready to "open it up and see where I'm at" in a Manchester street race that pits him against Britons Marlon Devonish and Christian Malcolm, Bolt is preparing to open his 2011 campaign over 100m at the Golden Gala meeting in Rome on Thursday week. There has been no talk of the fastest two men on the planet locking horns before the World Championships.
But does Gay think he might have to break the world record to beat Bolt to the blue riband 100m crown in Daegu? "Possibly," he said, after pause for thought. "Not necessarily. But I think it will be close to it. I think I can run 9.5sec. Maybe I'm crazy. I've never gone close to it before, but I think I can."
And what about 14 months from now, and the high speed business at the London Olympic Games? "I want to redeem myself for 2008," Gay said. "I have a point to prove to myself and to my country too. I want to come home with some hardware. There's a hole there and I have to fill it up."
Manchester's Big Day
The GreatCity Games, held on a specially laid track in Manchester, start at 3.30pm tomorrow. The highlight is the men's 150m, featuring Tyson Gay, who last year on Deansgate set a world best 19.41sec for 200m on a straight track. The race, at 4.48pm, is the climax of what has been called Manchester's Great Day of Sport. At 10am world marathon record holder Haile Gebrselassie competes in the Great Manchester Run, a 10km road race, while at 2pm Olympic medallists Keri-Anne Payne and Cassie Patten take part in the Great Salford Swim.