Almost from the moment Usain Bolt finished his 3-for-3-for-3 performance at the Beijing Olympics — three events, three gold medals, three world records — everyone began to wonder what he would do for an encore four years later.
That all changed in the span of about 72 hours.
Yohan Blake, Bolt’s countryman, workout partner and rival, beat the World’s Fastest Man in the 100- and 200-meter finals at Jamaica’s Olympic trials. Bolt’s subsequent withdrawal from a meet in Monaco only added to the intrigue.
As the start of the Summer Games approaches, it appears Bolt will have to do more than merely run a series of time trials to notch three more victories and cement his name as the “living legend” he hopes to become. Instead, there are questions, namely: Will Bolt be able to hold off Blake? Or will Blake’s challenge only serve to spur him?
No surprise what Bolt’s take is.
“He’s very determined and he wants to win,” Bolt said about Blake, “and that keeps pushing me.”
Other athletes are fascinated by that duo and the fireworks they could produce in London, where athletics competition begins in 80,000-seat Olympic Stadium on Aug. 3 with preliminaries in the women’s 100-meter heats. The men take to the track a day later for their dash.
“That’s a scary thought: Yohan Blake and Usain Bolt training together. … That should kick in that extra motivation, if there’s anything needed there,” U.S. hurdler David Oliver said. “Just to see what those two guys are capable of doing, if they’re both on?”
Bolt’s world records are 9.58 seconds in the 100, and 19.19 in the 200. Blake ran a personal-best 9.75 at trials and has a 19.26 in the longer race.
“You just never know,” Oliver added. “It’s going to be a spectacle, that’s for sure.”
That head-to-head showdown might be only one part of what could turn out to be a Jamaica vs. Jamaica Olympics, as opposed to Jamaica vs. The World, or Jamaica vs. U.S.
While the tiny nation was adding Blake to its collection of possible gold medalists, and defending women’s 100 Olympic champion Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce was running the seventh-fastest time ever (10.70) while also adding a 200 national title, the U.S. team experienced as many negatives as positives during its tumultuous Olympic trials.
Decathlete Ashton Eaton set a world record, but teammate Bryan Clay, the defending Olympic champion and Castle High product, didn’t qualify.
A U.S. sprinter with personality, 200-meter runner Wallace Spearmon, found his form, but double Olympic bronze medalist Walter Dix failed to make the team, and 2004 400-meter champion Jeremy Wariner only made it as part of the relay pool.
Allyson Felix, meanwhile, ran a personal-best 21.69 seconds in 200-meter qualifying, but she also took center stage in the controversy that overshadowed the entire trials, really: How to settle a dead heat for the third and final spot in the women’s 100. The sprinters finally settled on a runoff; shortly after, Felix’s opponent, Jeneba Tarmoh, pulled out.
Felix is a long shot to medal in the 100, while in the 200, she seeks her first individual Olympic gold — the main prize missing from a career that includes three world championships and two runner-up finishes on track’s biggest stage.
“People may wonder, ‘What in the world? Shelly-Ann ran 10.70 and you’re nowhere close to that,’ ” said Felix, whose personal best in the 100 is 10.92. “But it’s about making my 200 better and giving it my all.”
In Beijing, Jamaica won 11 medals at the track — not bad for a country of about 2.7 million.
Buoyed by sheer numbers up and down the lineup of events, the United States led all nations with 23 medals. But that matched the country’s second-lowest total since 1992, and two medals were squandered when both 4×100-meter relay teams dropped the baton. So instead of celebrating after Beijing, the U.S. track team returned home and tried to regroup.
The result: “Project 30,” a boldly stated mission to win 30 medals in London — a goal that leaders of the track team have only tepidly embraced since former CEO Doug Logan was fired not long after setting it.
“That’s a ‘reach’ goal,” said new CEO Max Siegel. “But I’m very confident we’ll have a good showing over in London.”
Among America’s best sprinters is Carmelita Jeter, the world leader at 100 meters before Fraser-Pryce ran faster, and the strongest U.S. candidate to win three medals — in the 100, 200 and 4×100 relay.
And on the men’s side, there are a couple of familiar names: Tyson Gay and Justin Gatlin. Gatlin is the 2004 Olympic champion at 100 meters who is back on the international scene following a four-year ban for excessive testosterone. Gay is the 2007 world champion who is still working his way back from a hip injury, one of a number of ailments starting to dwarf his list of accomplishments.
And hovering over the entire track meet, especially the sprints, will be the new false start rule. In the past, the entire field was given a freebie, and disqualifications didn’t start until the second person jumped. These days, it’s a no-tolerance policy: You jump once, you’re out.
The most high-profile victim of the rule thus far was Bolt. At the world championships last year, he was disqualified from the 100 for a false start, clearing a path for Blake’s win.
Until a few weeks ago, most track aficionados thought Bolt could beat Blake if the two actually ran head-to-head.
Didn’t quite work out that way.
At Jamaica’s Olympic trials, Bolt was glacially slow in unfurling his 6-foot-5 frame from the starting blocks, leading to questions about whether the aftershock of last year’s false start was still playing in his mind. Still, Blake was impressive in his own right.
He beat Bolt by 0.11 seconds. To put that in perspective, when Bolt coasted to a victory in a then-world-record 9.69 seconds in Beijing, his margin of victory over Richard Thompson of Trinidad and Tobago was 0.20.
So it seems safe to say Bolt is not completely out of the picture. But he does have some ground to make up.
“It’s just all about the work,” Bolt said. “I’ve just got to put in the work, got to figure out what I did wrong and just keep working at it.”