Fri, September 20, 2013

Can Olympic sprinter Usain Bolt strike twice?

By STEVE SIMMONS, QMI Agency


Usain Bolt of Jamaica is seeking history in London at the 2012 Summer Games, where he could become the first man in history to win the 100M dash at consecutive Olympics. (Reuters)

LONDON - These are the star-first Olympics that Jacques Rogge has always envisioned: A Games in which the biggest names in sport garner the largest headlines, the loudest cheers.

Michael Phelps won his 21st medal Friday night, his 17th gold — imagine that — with a stirring come-from-behind finish in what will certainly be the last individual Olympic race of his incomparable career.

A few hours earlier, legendary Roger Federer needed more than four hours on centre court at famed Wimbledon, with Kobe Bryant in the stands watching, to win a breathtaking 19-17 third set against Juan Martin del Potro and advance to the tennis final.

The best swimmer in history. Arguably, the best tennis player in history. And with Andy Murray winning his semifinal, you can add a Wimbledon rematch at Rogge’s high-profile Olympics.

And now for the main event of the Summer Games.

The men’s 100 metres — the signature event of this and every Olympics — begins Saturday morning at the massive and noisy Olympic Stadium. It isn’t just about Usain Bolt anymore, although it was four years ago in Beijing. Now the thinking is, it’s more of a match race than a one-man show.

It is Bolt vs. Johan Blake. Or some might say Blake vs. Bolt.

Two sprinters from one country. Only one can win it all.

“He wants to win, and I want to win,” said the lesser-known Blake. “Win, lose or draw we’re still friends.”

But this isn’t about friendship. This is about being perfect on the one night you have to be. Bolt may have had opposition in Beijing, it just didn’t seem that way. He rendered the rest of the world’s sprinters irrelevant in the finals of the 100- and 200-metre races, winning three gold medals, setting three world records, and brought along his engaging personality to go with his uncanny speed.

That was then.

Now we’re not sure what to think about Bolt now. Not after facing adversity for the very first time.

Blake beat him in the world championship last year when Bolt was disqualified for false starting.

Blake beat him again in the recent Jamaican national championships, when Bolt was reportedly nursing an injury.

The first victory is understandable, especially with an unforgiving rule. The second victory has been interpreted in all kinds of ways since. Those wins, whatever the circumstances, should have made Blake the favourite here, except the local betting houses in London have Bolt as a 4-6 favourite to win the 100 on Sunday and Blake the second favourite at 6-4.

This much needs to be known: No sprinter in Olympic history has won the 100-metre race in consecutive Olympic Games.

Officially, Carl Lewis has gold from the 1984 and gold and a world record from the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, but no one who saw that race can ever say Lewis won it. Or, in retrospect, deserved the gold or the world record. Defending a title is more than a challenge.

What nobody knows — except maybe Bolt and the Jamaican coaches — is just how ready Bolt is, just how healthy he is, whether he can play big-stage again and blow the opposition away. There are those in the track world who figure Bolt is just playing possum, ready to leap come Sunday. And there are those, like former world-record holder Maurice Greene who believe it’s Blake’s time.

“Blake is going to win,” said Greene. “Blake is just a little bit better and if you go back and look at the Jamaican trials they say Bolt had a bad start, but look at Blake, too, he was right back there with Bolt, they both had bad starts and Blake was still able to come out victorious in that race. I mean even though he is having slow starts he still gets second, though, so he is still able to overcome some things.”

Greene believes the winner of the 100 may again shatter the world record. Bolt did that in 2008. Canada’s Donovan Bailey did the same in 1996. But there was one significant difference between those victories and the Games of London: Those times were run in extreme heat. On the first night of track and field Friday, the winds were blowing, the temperature feeling closer to winter than summer and anything but Jamaican weather.

“I close my eyes and dream about it,” said Blake. “That is why I am ‘The Beast.’” That’s what he’s been called since his world championship win. “My philosophy is, when I am working, other guys are sleeping. I never stop working. I want to be the best.

“I am a man of surprises ... you never know.”

steve.simmons@sunmedia.ca

Twitter: @simmonssteve