To the interloper, the Olympic 100 meters is but a 10-second event. What's shorter? A drag race? Bull-riding?
The notorious Ben Johnson once said, in a voice straight out of his native Jamaica, "The gun go off, the race be over.'' He was talking about his own steroid-fueled dominance, but he could have been describing an average fan's view of any 100.
In truth, it's much more than the 10 seconds between the starter's pistol and finish line. It is the epic preparation (and performance) required merely to earn a place as one of the eight Olympic 100-meter finalists on Aug. 16. It is the unreal pressure on a sprinter to deliver the contrary acts of speed and relaxation at the same. It is the relentless subtext of steroid use. It is, in fact, an opera compressed into those 10 seconds, an endless array of storylines hanging in the air after the word "Set.''
Usain Bolt of Jamaica will be there on the line. Assuming he has survived his first four-round, 100-meter Olympic competition as a favorite. He is 21 years old, 6-foot-5 and potentially a sprinter of such surpassing physical gifts that he evolves the sport by his very presence in it.
But as he sits in the blocks, I will wonder what the rounds have taken from him and where the pressure lives in his head. Last May, I sat with him in a hotel lobby in Kingston, and he seemed like a U.S. teenager, fighting back the temptation to check his texts while we talked. Is he ready for this stage?
Asafa Powell will be there, too. Also Jamaican. What can he be thinking as he folds himself into the blocks? From 2005 through '07, he was the fastest runner on earth, first breaking and twice equaling his world record of 9.77 seconds before taking it down to 9.74 last September. But he lost in the world championships and then needed shoulder surgery in April and then watched as Bolt -- with whom he shares a training track -- ascended so quickly.
Donovan Bailey, the erudite Jamaican-born Canadian, says, "This time, there is absolutely no pressure on Asafa, and that might be the best thing for him.'' Search YouTube for Powell and watch him run 9.74 last fall in Italy. He is so relaxed that he looked like an accountant warming up for a local 5K. Can he find that relaxation in the Games and chase away his demons?
Tyson Gay will be there. At least I think he will. I hope he will. Gay won three gold medals at last summer's world championships and established himself as a sprinter who was not only fast, but also stout in the face of pressure. Then came Bolt. Then, at the U.S. Olympic Trials, a hamstring injury sidelined Gay. If he does make the field, he won't have raced in a month. Olympic timing is impossibly cruel.
Gay is a sweet guy, accommodating and honest with the media, deferential to elders and respectful of opponents. He deserves a chance at winning this race at full strength, but it seems unlikely he will get it. We will sit and stand in the stadium as the rounds unfold, watching first to see if Bolt can finish his races and then if Gay can finish them as fast.
And whatever happens, there will be whispers. Who is clean? Who is dirty? This is always the case in sprinting, where the elephant never leaves the room. There is the moment of celebration, when the winner throws his arms skyward and a stadium looks at the clock, but then there is the skepticism that lasts a lifetime.
Which is a lot longer than 10 seconds.