There is something otherworldly about the name – Usain St Leo Bolt – and certainly something otherworldly about the talent. It is a name that transcends sport and the name World Athletics Championships organisers so desperately want to be the headline in Moscow.
Bolt being Bolt, he probably will be, and the world will find out soon enough. Today, he will take his place in the starting blocks at the Luzhniki Stadium for his 100 metres heat. The 26-year-old will undoubtedly saunter through with the sort of nonchalance with which he runs the early rounds.
It will barely seem like a jog, his 6ft 5in frame well within its limits while the lesser mortals in the lanes alongside huff and puff, scrapping their way to the minor placings.
The former Olympic and world 100m champion Donovan Bailey believes that will continue through every round, this week insisting Bolt was unbeatable, while Frankie Fredericks, who won his only world title 20 years ago, believes Russia could witness Bolt going below the 9.58sec world record mark set in Berlin at the 2009 World Championships.
The truth is no one knows what sort of form Bolt is in. He has been notable for his relative silence out in Moscow. There were the usual laughter and smiles at Jamaica’s open training session on Thursday but not the usual Puma press conference, where Bolt likes to litter his gold dust of sound bites on a salivating global media.
Instead, it was left to the coach of the fastest man in the world, Glen Mills, to cast his assessment over his stellar athlete. “He’s in good health,” said Mills. “He’s always highly motivated going into the games. He takes competition and the big occasions very seriously. He’s highly motivated for games like the Worlds and Olympics. He’s in good shape now to run very well.”
That has not always been the case this season. Bolt won the Jamaican trials, although his closest adversary, Yohan Blake, was absent and Bolt ran far from his best. In fact, he was slower even than a Briton – James Dasaolu’s 9.91sec eclipsing anything Bolt had managed in 2013 – until the Sainsbury’s Anniversary Games.
One thing is certain, the championships need Bolt to shine. A false start and disqualification, as happened in Daegu, would be a disaster, not least because the man most likely to be nipping at his heels is the American Justin Gatlin.
Few athletes currently competing have had a more chequered past than Gatlin, who has consistently denied any wrongdoing despite two bans for doping. But he is on the start line in Moscow and, with four runs under 10 seconds this season, is the most consistent rival to Bolt.
Gatlin himself is confident he can upset the odds. “I’ve got world champion blood in me,” he said. “It’s not about times but about running to the line, being the first across it.”
Sprinting’s association with drugs, of which the public at large first became truly aware a quarter of a century ago following Ben Johnson’s positive sample at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, is still an issue. Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell will only be able to watch the championships from home after both produced positive tests. Both men have denied any wrongdoing but Gay’s exclusion is particularly galling as he was held up as a bastion of clean sprinting – and he was the quickest man on the planet this year.
It is merely the tip of the iceberg of what has gone on this season. Turkey has just had 31 athletes banned for two years for what reads like systematic doping while the World Championships hosts, Russia, have 40 of their athletes ineligible to compete following their own failed tests.
The championships could do without such headlines but, to its credit, the International Athletics Federation (IAAF) is ploughing ahead with catching and punishing the cheats. There have been widescale pre-competition blood tests for each athlete’s biological passport – all 44 members of the Jamaican team were tested on Tuesday – to check for abnormal blood values. In addition, urine tests will be carried out on the top three in each event, with random testing also ongoing. The samples taken will be frozen, the message being that cheats can be caught in due course as the testing procedures improve, plus the bans will be more punitive – the IAAF announced this week that it was returning to four-year bans.
Amid all the negative headlines, the fact can almost be lost that over the next nine days the world’s best athletes will do battle on track and field. Admittedly, not all are here. The defending 100m champion Blake and 800m world record holder David Rudisha, the Olympic and world champion, are among those out injured, as is Britain’s Jessica Ennis-Hill.
Even without Ennis-Hill, there is still a sense that gold medals can be celebrated within the British camp, although maybe not the four enjoyed on the team’s last visit to the stadium for the 1980 Olympics, when Allan Wells, Steve Ovett, Sebastian Coe and Daley Thompson were in their pomp.
Much as Bolt is reckoned a dead cert for gold, the expectation is that Mo Farah will win both the 10,000m and 5,000m, repeating that remarkable double of last summer. If anything, he is a better athlete now, more tactically aware, with a Bolt-esque turn of speed for that final lap.
The Ethiopian, Kenyan and Ugandan contingents will all line up to upset the form book, knowing the only realistic way to beat the Briton is to run at a high tempo throughout, in so doing hoping to negate that turn of speed.
Should Farah successfully defy that plan, his golds could be Britain’s only ones – not that there are no other contenders. Christine Ohuruogu, herself a former Olympic and World 400m champion, appears to be in better form than when she won either of those titles and, such is her championship pedigree, she can aspire to the top step of the podium.
Perri Shakes-Drayton, who rivalled Ohuruogu as London’s most local athlete to the Olympic Stadium last summer, is another with gold in her sights in the 400m hurdles, although that would entail ending the Czech Zuzana Hejnova’s dominance this season.
Other medals – of which colour remains to be seen – ought to come from the women’s 4x400m relay team and the men’s 4x100m quartet, should they successfully manage to pass on the baton three times.
Dasaolu has medal aspirations in the 100m, although the frailty of his body is still a cause for concern, while question marks hang over the 400m hurdles world champion Dai Greene and Olympic long jump champion Greg Rutherford, recovering from calf and hamstring injuries respectively.
Whatever successes British athletes can conjure, though, Bolt remains the headline act.
Moscow must-sees: Weekend highlights
* Saturday Decathlon starts (Ashley Bryant)
8.20am BST Men’s 800m round one (Andrew Osagie/Michael Rimmer)
3.05pm Women’s 400m round one (Christine Ohuruogu)
3.55pm Men’s 10,000m (Mo Farah)
4.20pm Women’s long jump qualifying (Shara Proctor)
5.15pm Men’s 100m round one (Usain Bolt/James Dasaolu)
Decathlon final day
6.40am Men’s 110m hurdles round one (Will Sharman/Aries Merritt)
7.25am Women’s 1500m round one (Hannah England/Laura Weightman)
8.55am Women’s 100m round one 4pm Women’s long jump final 4.35pm Men’s 800m semi-finals 5.05pm Women’s 400m semi-final 6.50pm Men’s 100m final n TV BBC/EurosportReuse content