Sprint rivals add spice to the feast of athletics

Just as the "Bird's Nest" Stadium stands at the heart of the Beijing Games, athletics stands at the heart of the Olympic programme – and Saturday's 100 metres final looks like being a track and field centrepiece to set the pulse racing.

Great rivalries have always been the compelling element to the event that stands as one of the biggest draws of the Games. Down the years, the names are linked: 1924 Harold Abrahams and Jackson Scholz; 1936 Jesse Owens and Ralph Metcalfe; 1988 Ben Johnson and Carl Lewis; 1992 Linford Christie and Leroy Burrell; 2004 Justin Gatlin and Asafa Powell. This time round, however, the short sprint involves not two but three principal rivals, all of whom can advance a convincing claim to the title – two Jamaicans, in Usain Bolt and Asafa Powell, and the double world champion from the United States, Tyson Gay.

When the 100m first round heats get under way tomorrow – in the early hours of the morning UK time – Gay is the runner who will be watched with particular attention, given that he has not raced since dropping to the track with a hamstring injury during the 200m at last month's US Olympic trials. How sharp will the 26-year-old Texan be? For all that he has been performing confidently in training, he will want to establish early on, both to himself and his opponents, that he is back in proper shape.

Gay's fellow Texan Michael Johnson, the retired world 200m and 400m record holder, believes the world champion was in the shape of his life before his untimely setback in Eugene, Oregon – but considers he will now struggle to achieve racing sharpness in time to earn gold.

Gay and Powell offered the event its traditional balance of rivalry at last year's World Championships in Osaka, but Powell, then world record holder and unbeaten in three years, was the favourite. As he has since admitted, he lost composure when the American pulled back his early lead, and finished third.

Since then, Powell has seen his record of 9.74sec reduced to 9.72sec by his fellow Jamaican and has also had his season disrupted by a chest injury and a groin strain. But he has shown in his last three races – at Stockholm, where he beat Bolt, London and Monaco – that he could be running into form at the right time. However, despite his victory in the 2006 Commonwealth Games, he still has to prove he is not just a big runner for the small occasion.

Bolt, meanwhile, has had to deal with two months' worth of media demands now that he has emerged, all 6ft 5in of him, as the latest bearer of that pressurising little tag – the world's fastest man. The 21-year-old will be the only one of the three 100m principals to be doubling at the 200m, although that appears a far less demanding task for him, given the dominance he has established at the distance this season.

Bolt will have his work cut out to live up to his ne-found status, but if he can unfurl his ungainly frame from the blocks in at least reasonable order, and curtail his habit of slowing near the line, he has the capacity to become the first man to win 100m and 200m gold at the same Games since Lewis in 1984.

Attempting to assess the three contending claims is like playing the old children's game of scissors, paper, stone – Bolt's speed as world record holder wins, but Powell beat him last time out, but Gay beat Powell in the World Championships, but Bolt beat Gay in setting the world record...

For anyone to claim the title other than someone from this trio of sprinters would be a big surprise. But if there are any slip-ups – and this event usually provides at least one at the Games – then the principal beneficiaries could be the world silver medallist Derek Adkins, from the Bahamas, the Trinidadian pair of Richard Thompson and Marc Burns, and the two other US entrants Darvis Patten and Walter Dix, the latter having distinct possibilities of glory in the longer sprint too.

The pattern of rivalry will have its echoes throughout the rest of the athletics programme, most notably in the 110m hurdles, where China's defending champion Liu Xiang is under pressure from the Cuban who lowered his world record to 12.87sec earlier this season, Dayron Robles. What Cathy Freeman was to the Australians at the 2000 Sydney Games, Liu is to the home nation here. The pressure on him to deliver makes that bearing down on the 100m protagonists appear as nothing.

Another of his problems, apart from the expectation of 1.3 billion people, is that he has not raced since May because of what might be a hamstring problem.

Paula Radcliffe is in a broadly similar position. A year ago, she would have been the only British athlete who could claim to be a gold medal favourite going into these Games, albeit that she faces a strong field and conditions which may yet prove devastating to many ambitions.

All is changed since she discovered in May that she had a stress fracture of the thigh and, although she is determined to toe the line it has to be said that it would be a triumph for her to toe the finish line, never mind to get a medal. Her awesome strength of character has brought her to the brink of Sunday's race against all medical advice or prediction. But will we now witness a tragedy which has its roots in her obsessive quest for the only honour yet to have eluded her?

While circumstance has worked against Radcliffe, Phillips Idowu's efforts within the last six months mean that Britain still has one athlete who is an Olympic favourite. For many years, the hugely talented triple jumper has failed to realise the potential he showed in finishing sixth in Sydney 2000 as Jonathan Edwards took the gold. At the Athens 2004 Games he failed to register a mark in the final. But he comes into these Games top of the world rankings, with the title of world indoor champion – and at 29 he's the same age as Edwards was in Sydney.

On paper, the 400m title should go to the athlete who failed to qualify in her best event for last year's World Championships, Sanya Richards. The American has run 49.86sec this year, the second fastest time at sea level behind the 49.83 recorded by compatriot Allyson Felix, who is concentrating on the 200m here.

Britain's world champion Christine Ohuruogu's best this year is only 50.80, but she has been adding sprinting races to her formidable strength this year, and showed her capacity by clocking 49.61 in Osaka last summer. She can be a surprise winner for Britain, with world silver medallist Nicola Sanders also forcing her way on to the podium.

Kelly Sotherton's chances of returning to the Olympic podium after her bronze in Athens have been improved by the decision of the defending champion, Carolina Kluft, to concentrate on the long jump, the decision of the Belgian who narrowly beat her to the European indoor pentathlon title, Tia Hellebaut, to concentrate on the high jump, and the untimely broken ankle suffered by her young, domestic rival Jessica Ennis. But in the newly emerging American, Hyleas Fountain, Russia's Tatyana Chernova and Lyudmila Blonska, of the Ukraine, Sotherton will need to be at her best. Her recent long jump best of 6.79m bodes well – but will she manage to throw the javelin properly this time round? There have been encouraging reports from the Macau training base that she has been throwing over 40m.

Whatever the weather, Sotherton's newly established credentials as a 400m runner mean that Britain, with Lee McConnell also available, could earn tangible reward in the women's 400m relay. Andrew Baddeley also looks capable of reaching the rostrum, in the 1500m.

Three rivalries to relish: Track fireworks set to send Beijing into raptures

Men's 100m: Asafa Powell v Usain Bolt v Tyson Gay

Bolt has broken Asafa Powell's world record of 9.74sec this year, reducing it to 9.72. Gay has run even faster, 9.68sec at the US trials, but the wind speed was twice the legal level required for record purposes. Powell has still run six of the best eight times of all time. Assuming they can stay in one piece for the final, it's going to be interesting to say the least.

Men's 110m Hurdles: Liu Xiang v Dayron Robles

Liu Xiang is the defending champion and home idol, but no longer the favourite since the Cuban lowered his world record to 12.87 this season. To compound his problems, Liu has not competed since May, when hesuffered a hamstring injury. Since then his preparations have been the stuff of mystery. Watch this space.

Women's 400m: Christine Ohuruogu v Sanya Richards

Britain's Ohuruogu should not be quick enough to catch the American, who is the fastest of the entrants this year. But Richards has a habit of not actually winningbig titles, while Ohuruogu, the Commonwealth and world champion, has – as well as ferocious physical and mental strength.

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