Has Usain shot his Bolt?

For the first time in years the planet's fastest man is looking vulnerable. Simon Turnbull reports on whether the unthinkable might happen when he defends his sprint titles at the World Championships in South Korea

Asafa Powell is sitting in a Birmingham hotel, a black beanie hat pulled tightly over his shaven head. "This is like the North Pole for me," he says.

The heat will soon be on for Powell, the fastest man in 2011, and for his Jamaican compatriot Usain Bolt, the fastest man of all time, in the battle for the World Championship 100m title. The first-round heats take place at the Daegu Stadium in South Korea next Saturday. The final will be at 12.45pm British time a week today.

The question in the wake of the last World Championships in Berlin two years ago was how much quicker the Lightning Bolt might be able to strike. Having knocked lumps out of his own world records for the 100m and 200m, reducing them from 9.69sec to 9.58 and from 19.30 to 19.19 respectively, the world was wondering what the magical Bolt might do for his next trick.

A 9.4sec 100m, perhaps? A sub-19sec 200m? There was even talk of the just-turned 23-year-old expanding his horizons to embrace new challenges. The 400 metres, maybe? Or even the long jump?

Two years on, the questions have been lowered from the fantastical to the pragmatic. Such as: will Bolt even win the 100m in Daegu? And, from the long-term point of view: has the Jamaican phenomenon possibly even shot his bolt on the world record front?

A Bolt win is not the foregone conclusion that it once was. After he clowned his way to victory in the Olympic 100m final in Beijing in 2008, clocking a world record 9.69sec despite applying the brakes and celebrating some 20 metres out, one newspaper published a cartoon of the beanpole sprinter lazing in an armchair beyond the finish line, puffing on a cigar and enquiring of his still-toiling rivals: "Where have you been?"

Bolt won that race by 0.20sec. He won the 200m final in Beijing by 0.66sec, the biggest margin in the Olympic history of the event. At the 2009 World Championships he won the 100m by 0.13 and the 200m by 0.62.

He became the first man to perform a back-to-back clean sweep of the Olympic and World Championship 100m and 200m titles – and all by distances that equate to a veritable street in the sprint game, where the difference between winning and losing has been traditionally measured in hundredths of a seconds, and by forensic scrutiny of the photo-finish picture.

This summer, after an indifferent, injury-plagued 2010 season and a winter troubled by a congenital back problem, Bolt has yet to lose but has been pushed to the wire in two of the three 100m races he has contested.

In Rome in May, he squeezed home by 0.02 from Powell in 9.91. Last month in Monaco he pipped Nesta Carter, another Jamaican who will have eyes on Bolt's global 100m crown, by the same margin, clocking 9.88.

In between times, Bolt won in Ostrava in 9.91, prevailing by 0.06 from Steve Mullings, the Jamaican who has been removed from the World Championship equation because of a positive drugs test.

While the wider world might still be expecting nothing other than a Bolt victory in the blue riband event in Daegu, the former also-rans of the sprint game no longer see him as invincible.

"I don't think any of the athletes think that," Powell says. "Everybody wants that gold medal. This year is totally different to 2008 and 2009. This year everyone is thinking about crossing the finish line first. I'm not going out thinking: 'Oh, Usain is here, so he should win and make all the people happy.' I'm going out thinking about crossing the finish line first.

"I should have beaten Usain in Rome. I gave that race away. That's why I know I can beat him this year. I think I have a great chance, a 99 per cent chance of winning."

One thing is certain: Bolt is some way short of 100 per cent. In 2008 he had clocked 9.72 before the Olympic Games. In 2009 he had run 9.79 before the World Championships. Going into the 2011 World Championships, his best 100m time of the year is 9.88. His fastest in the whole of last year was 9.82.

While he has recovered from the Achilles tendon injury that curtailed his 2010 season after his 100m defeat to Tyson Gay in Stockholm, Bolt has not got back to his unbridled best following a winter disrupted by scoliosis.

He has suffered from a curvature of the spine since birth and has made regular trips to Munich to be treated by Dr Hans Wilhelm Müller-Wohlfahrt, the German sports medicine guru whose eclectic client list has also included the likes of Michael Jordan, Diego Maradona, Michael Owen, Luciano Pavarotti and Bono.

Even with the help of "Healing Hans", the world's fastest man has not been firing on all of his exceptional cylinders. "I don't have a 9.58 in me this season," Bolt concedes. "I am just working to get down to 9.7 or maybe 9.60 but not 9.58. The aim is to get back to that world record time for next season, for the London Olympics.

"I still need to work on my reaction time, my first 30m. I have to keep working on a few things. I'm getting better, but it's a long way from 9.58. I'm facing facts. I want to try and run as fast as possible but it's not going to happen this year."

Only in relative terms can 9.88 be described as "slow" but Bolt's rivals expected him to be running faster in the run-up to Daegu. "I would have expected 9.80, something like that," Powell says. "But it takes time to get everything flowing."

The 6ft 5in Bolt has shown that his huge talent has a propensity for rising to the big occasion, so there may yet be a significant improvement on his season's bests in the 100m and 200m, which stands at 19.86sec.

It is likely to take a trouble-free winter and the challenge of the London Olympics, though, to get him anywhere close to his world record times. Even then, there is a possibility that we may already have seen the very best of Bolt.

His 9.58 is as close to perfection as there is in any track and field event, according to the Hungarian Scoring Tables, the long-established measure for evaluating the merit of performances in different disciplines. Bolt's 100m record is worth 1,374 points on a scale that runs up to 1,400. In comparative terms, it rates as by far the greatest single athletics achievement of all time.

His performance equates to a marathon run in 1hr 58min 15 sec. The world record for the 26.2-mile distance stands at 2hr 03min 58sec by Ethiopia's Haile Gebrselassie. It also equals a 400m run of 42.09; Michael Johnson's 12-year-old world record is 43.18.

In that respect, Bolt has become a victim of his own freakish success. It is what Joni Mitchell touched upon when her audience were crying out for her past hits during the recording of her live album, Miles of Aisles. "Nobody ever said to Van Gogh, 'Paint a Starry Night again, man'," she observed. "He painted a picture and that was it."

The crowds have continued to flock to the Lightning Bolt shows on the European circuit this summer but there has been an audible sigh from the gallery every time the clock has ticked on well beyond 9.58 or 19.19. "You can't expect a world record every time on the track," Powell says, in sympathy. "It's really ridiculous. You can't run 9.58 every time, or 9.6 even.

"It's very hard to say if there's going to be another 9.58. I can't tell the future. That was a perfect race for Usain. He got the best start. He was way in front from the get-go. There was nothing to be corrected. Will he ever do it again? I honestly have no idea."

In the meantime, Powell, who leads the 100m world rankings this year with 9.78, is hoping to pounce on a less than perfect Bolt in Daegu. Also hoping to profit is Walter Dix, who has yet to lose a sprint race this year and who will lead the United States challenge in the absence of the injured Tyson Gay.

"Bolt's definitely beatable," says Dix. "I'll be prepared, come Daegu. My confidence is pretty high. I'm going in with the instinct to win. If I don't come out with a win, I'll be very disappointed."

As for the Lightning Bolt, he will be very disappointed if he fails to come back from Daegu with two wins, and with his titles intact. All will be revealed in a flash next weekend.

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