BEIJING -- In the last weekend in June, Tyson Gay finally seemed to have found his path to the Olympic Games. Less than a month after he was crushed in the 100 meters by 21-year-old Jamaican Usain Bolt's world record of 9.72 seconds at the Reebok Track Classic in New York, Gay won the U.S. Olympic Trials.
And he didn't simply win. In the quarterfinals Gay ran 9.77 seconds to break Maurice Greene's U.S. record by .02. In the final he ran a wind-assisted 9.68. Because of the gusts at Gay's back, the time was ineligible for record consideration, but it was mighty impressive nonetheless, the fastest 100 by any man under any conditions.
Gay had won both the 100 and 200 at last summer's world championships in Japan to become the presumptive Olympic favorite in both events, and then he had been embarrassed by Bolt. The Trials 100 verified that Gay was still a player.
It lasted one week. On the afternoon of July 5, Gay crashed frighteningly to the track in the early part of his 200-meter quarterfinal heat, eliminating him from the Games in that event under the USA's bloodless trials system. Solemn statements were issued. Hamstring strain. Message boards hummed with speculation on the only topic in play: Would Gay be healthy for the Olympics?
On Thursday, Gay's coach, Jon Drummond, answered strongly in the affirmative. "He's back,'' said Drummond after a training session with Gay here. "I don't want to make any predictions, because this is the Olympics and anything can happen. But I can say confidently that when Tyson shows up on the line, he will be 100 percent.'' [The 100-meter heats begin on the morning of Aug. 15 in China, with the final on Sat., Aug. 16].
Feel free to embrace Drummond's assurance or to dismiss it. Hamstrings are fickle. Sprinters and their coaches can sometimes see only glasses half-full. Only the very naïve would be shocked to see Gay bail out in the first round or win the gold medal.
But it is noteworthy that words were issued from his camp. In the 33 days since his injury, Gay has spoken little. He issued a statement through his publicist in Eugene and conducted a brief interview with NBC. On July 11, he went through with pre-arranged plans to shift his training base to Munich, and pointed toward running the 100 meters at a July 25 meet in London. On July 16, I spoke to him via cell phone from Germany. "I still have tightness in the hamstring,'' he told me. "That works on a sprinter's nerves.''
Gay didn't race in London, and on Aug. 5 issued another brief statement upon leaving Munich for Beijing, affirming his commitment to the Games. On Thursday Drummond opened the door to Gay's underground July, beginning with the afternoon of the injury.
"It looked worse than it was,'' said Drummond. (It looked bad; as Gay tried to pull up, he clipped his own heels together, pitching his body forward onto the track and eliciting a huge gasp from the Hayward Field crowd). "He went down so abruptly, so hard. But he got excellent care right away. We treated the injury like it was a complete pull, which it wasn't, and that helped him get started on his recovery.''
Drummond said that doctors diagnosed Gay's injury as a Grade One strain (the most minor) in one of the three major muscles that comprise the hamstring. He was on a plane to Germany six days after the injury and jogged lightly on July 15. "We had an agreement,'' says Drummond. "No training until I get there.'' Drummond arrived in Germany on the morning of July 17 and put Gay through a workout on that day.
"Tyson trained that day,'' says Drummond. "At that point, my biggest concern was that Tyson was eating right and not gaining a lot of weight, because we all know that Tyson likes McDonald's. But he was fine. I got off the plane and my first question to the doctor was, 'Are we ready to run?' He said, 'You're ready to run.' Tyson talked about the tightness. That's just what an athlete feels when he's been in that rest and recovery mode for a couple of weeks. John Smith always used to tell us after we had some sort of injury, 'It's time to get back on the track.' So we got Tyson back on the track.''
Drummond says Gay immediately tolerated his training and showed little loss of fitness from before the Trials. They pointed toward the July 25 London race, but shortly beforehand, pulled out. Publicly, Team Gay cited continued recovery from his injury, but Drummond said that Gay could have run, and "after seeing the winning time'' -- (Jamaican Asafa Powell's 9.94 into a slight headwind), -- "Tyson probably would have won that race.''
But Gay made the decision to save himself for the Olympics. "Leading up to London, a lot of people who I respect kept asking me, 'Why?''' says Drummond. "Nothing matters except the Olympic Games. If Tyson ran London, it doesn't matter what he runs there if he goes on and he's an also-ran at the Olympics. Tyson and I sat down for a long talk before London and at the end, he said, 'I want to wait.''
The Olympic 100-meter roles have shifted almost weekly. First Gay was the favorite, and then Bolt, as Powell recovered from spring shoulder surgery. Powell is back now, having beaten Bolt in Stockholm on July 22 and then having run a very fast 9.82 in Monaco a week later.
"Asafa is really in a good place right now,'' says Powell's oldest brother, Donovan, a former world class sprinter who lives in Austin, Texas. "Usain is in very good shape, but all the pressure is on him.''
At his best, Bolt is a force of nature, 6-foot-5 with a smaller man's quickness, but the favorite's role at the Games has crushed more experienced men. Powell is fresh and working still to win his first major title.
Now Drummond says that in the last week, Gay's workouts have begun to look very much like his training before Eugene, when he was clearly at the edge of world record shape. The Olympic 100 would be a sensational race with any two of the big three. It is a much better race with all of them.