Refusal to play role of the Third Man spurs Powell to dash for the spotlight

Jamaican powerhouse has run the fastest 100m this year and, he tells Simon Turnbull, he's not in the shadow of Bolt and Gay

Asafa Powell strolls into the lounge at the Malmaison Hotel in Birmingham – shoulders hunched, a black beanie hat pulled tight over his head – a couple of athletes are sitting in the corner, one cupping his headphones so that the other can listen to the drum and bass beat.

The zither music of Anton Karas, the Viennese soundtrack to The Third Man, might have been more appropriate, given the place Powell has supposedly come to occupy in the global sprinting game.

Not that the powerfully-built, somewhat bashful Jamaican considers himself to be the Harry Lime of the 100m, lurking in the shadow of his two rivals Usain Bolt and Tyson Gay. "I wouldn't know the film," Powell says, in his quiet, lilting Caribbean voice. "I'm always watching cartoons.

"I don't see myself as the third man, the third best. I see myself as the top sprinter in the world, the No 1. I'm the No 1 sprinter this year, definitely. I'm the man to beat. That gives me confidence, the edge over everyone. I've run the fastest time this year and that is the time to beat."

Running in the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Lausanne last week, Powell – the fastest man in history until Bolt switched his attention from the 200m to the 100m three years ago – produced a thoroughbred performance at the shorter distance, clocking 9.78sec. It was the 28-year-old's fastest time in three years and put him at the top of the world rankings in 2011, 0.01sec ahead of the American Gay, whose season has been curtailed because of a hip problem that has required surgery.

Bolt, of course, has run 9.58sec for the 100m, but that was two years ago – in the World Championship final in Berlin, in which Gay finished second and Powell third. Bolt's best time so far this summer is 9.91sec, which ranks him seventh in the world.

With seven weeks to go before his world title goes on the line at the biennial global championships in Daegu, South Korea, the Lightning Bolt has no Gay to contend with as the 24-year-old pride of Trelawney Parish seeks to regain his superpowers following a disappointing, injury-affected 2010 season. He will, however, have to get the better of a fellow-countryman who stands third on the world all-time list – with a lifetime best of 9.72sec, behind Bolt's 9.58sec and Gay's 9.69sec – and who has patently hit a rich vein of form.

"This is the best shape I've ever been in before a championship," Powell says. "I've had a clear run, with no injuries."

His next run will be in the 100m at the Aviva Birmingham Grand Prix in front of a sold-out 12,700 crowd at the refurbished Alexander Stadium tomorrow. The big question, though, is whether the nearly man of the 100m – who has clocked four world records but never claimed a global title – can strike gold at the World Championships next month, or indeed at the Olympic Games in London next year.

"I think I have a great chance, a 99 per cent chance of winning, Powell says, without breaking his verbal stride.

Still, it is a fair bet that a similar percentage of the media's attention will be trained on Bolt in the countdown to Daegu. "Maybe after the World Championships that will change and we'll see who will be in the spotlight then," Powell suggests. "Leave me in the background for now. That suits me. He can take the heat and I will win. That's the plan.

"I don't go out thinking, 'Oh, Usain is here so he should win and make all the people happy.' I'm trying to be the one who crosses that finish line first. I should have beaten him in Rome. I gave away that race. That's why I know I can beat him this year."

At the Golden Gala meeting in the Stadio Olimpico in May, Powell had the better of Bolt for some 95m, only to be pipped by a tantalising 0.02sec. It was his ninth defeat in ten 100m races against his young compatriot. His one victory came in Stockholm in July 2008. Bolt's only other 100m defeat was also inflicted in the Swedish capital, by Gay in August last year.

Perhaps it would help Powell's quest for the ultimate prize if the Olympic 100m final were shifted from the East End of London to the north side of Stockholm in 2012. The received wisdom on the track scene is that the elder Jamaican could do with any edge he could possibly get on the psychology front when it comes to the major championships.

Powell did win Commonwealth 100m gold in Melbourne in 2006 but on the global stage he has finished fifth in the last two Olympic finals and third in the last two World Championships.

Even before Bolt came on the 100m scene, he could not find a Midas touch when it mattered most.

According to Michael Johnson: "Powell is one of those athletes who has not figured out how to compete under the immense pressure and expectation that comes with being one of the best." The 1996 Olympic 200m and 400m champion is not alone in his criticism. "Other people have been saying that when I go to the championships I freeze up and don't do what I'm supposed to," Powell acknowledges. "My coach said it was a mental problem but for me a part of it was mental and a part was physical.

"I was getting injured every year before the championships, so mentally that affected me. My times dropped to 9.94sec, so the confidence wasn't there. This time I know that I'm in good shape, so it's going to be a lot different."

If Powell seems not overly concerned about the missing piece from his professional jigsaw, it is entirely understandable. He appreciates that chasing for gold medals is far from a life and death matter.

In 2002 his brother Michael was shot and killed in a New York taxi cab, apparently by an opportunist mugger. Asafa was on his first year on the international track circuit at the time. He considered quitting athletics but another brother, Donovan, phoned him from the United States and persuaded him to carry on, saying: "It's what Michael would have wanted."

A year later, Donovan, winner of the US indoor 60m title in 1996, collapsed and died of a heart attack while playing American football.

Then there was the burglary at the family home in St Catherine's parish in which the Reverend William Powell – the father of Asafa, Michael, Donovan and three other sons – was shot through the jaw. He narrowly escaped death.

"It has affected me a lot over the years," Asafa says of the tragic, shocking loss of his brothers. "They were my two main supporters in my family. They were very excited about me running. So many times when I wanted to push through, it kind of brought me down.

"I manage to stay up and make my family happy. My mother and father, they both took it hard. So whenever I'm competing, whether I do well or not, when they see me they have something to be happy about."

William and Cislin Powell – like her husband, also a pastor in the Redemption National Church of God – have a good deal about which to be proud. Asafa has an Olympic gold medal, courtesy of his anchor leg for the victorious Jamaican 4x100m relay quartet in Beijing three years ago. He also has the biggest collection of sub-10-second 100m times in history: 68 of them. Bolt has 24.

It is an overlooked measure of Powell's high speed pedigree that he has made a feat that was not long ago regarded as a rare, noteworthy occasion the equivalent of shelling peas.

"The first one was in 2004 in Jamaica," he says. "It was in a small track meet in Spanish Town: 9.99sec. It didn't feel like 9sec. It felt very easy. It didn't feel like I was going that fast.

"It's almost every race now. I didn't used to pay much attention to it but it is a great achievement. I'm just trying to make it as many as possible. When I stop running 9.9sec maybe it will be time to retire but right now I feel like I'm getting stronger and stronger."

Asafa Powell is competing at the Aviva Birmingham Grand Prix tomorrow, live on BBC 2 and BBC HD (17.30-20.00). For more information on the Aviva Series go uka.org.uk/aviva-series or call 08000 556 056.

Fastest 100m times of 2011

9.78s Asafa Powell (Jam) 30 June

9.79s Tyson Gay (US)4 June

9.80s Steve Mullings (Jam) 4 June

9.85s Mike Rodgers (US) 4 June

9.88s Michael Frater (Jam) 30 June

9.89s Ngonidzashe Makusha (Zim) 10 June

9.91s Usain Bolt (US) *26 May

9.92s Nesta Carter (Jam) 4 June

9.93s Keston Bledman (US) 4 June

9.94s Darvis Patton (Jam) 4 June

*Ran same time on 5 June

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