Here was a metaphor screaming to be expressed. Asafa Powell, sweating.
Late Tuesday afternoon in Beijing, the Jamaican track star sat on stage at the Olympic headquarters of his apparel partner, Nike, and conducted a question and answer session with reporters and broadcasters. With bright lights trained on his shaved head, Powell busted out the perspiration about five minutes into his session. Nike PR director Dean Stoyer handed him a wad of paper towels so Powell could blot the streams rolling down his cheeks.
To be fair, the lights were hot. It was warm on the stage and Powell was wearing jeans and a windbreaker. Simple as that. But it's irresistible to frame Powell's central media appearance in watery terms, because that is precisely how Powell's medal chances in Saturday night's 100 meters are being handicapped. Can he handle the pressure? Will he crack?
The last time he competed in a global championship was a year ago in Osaka, when he came in as the favorite to win the 100 and got walked down in the final 40 meters by American Tyson Gay. After the race, Powell said he "panicked,'' a moment of self-criticism that is rare from any athlete, but especially so from a sprinter.
He has not changed the substance of his story, except to delete the word panic and substitute more colorful descriptions. "If you look at Osaka last year,'' he said, "I was leading at about 70 meters [that's true] and then I did a whole bunch of crap. I didn't relax and run straight through the finish line like I was supposed to do.''
That's an accurate description that's generally not in dispute anywhere in the sprint world. "Asafa didn't run a good race that night,'' says his U.S.-based agent, Paul Doyle. "We can all agree on that.''
Powell is a delightful guy. In late May I went to Jamaica and spent time with Powell (and Usain Bolt, who would break the 100-meter world record a week later in New York). I talked to Powell at the practice track next to the National Stadium, where Powell trains every day at dawn. I talked to him at Redbones Blues Café, a sweet restaurant in Kingston. He is friendly and funny, and even a little bit vulnerable, not altogether unlike Tyson Gay, except with a Jamaican twist on the English language.
As I wrote in Sports Illustrated's Olympic preview issue, Powell says watching the Osaka race is like watching "an accident.'' His coach, the harmlessly blustery Stephen Francis, told me, "After watching the first three rounds of the 100 meters in Osaka, I had no doubt that Tyson Gay would win that race.'' What Francis saw was part physical, part mental. Even after Powell broke his own world record in September with a 9.74 in Rieti, Italy, Francis set out to strengthen Powell's body (with more training) and mind (with positive thoughts) in the winter.
He missed more than a month of training after undergoing shoulder surgery in April, but has returned sharply, beating Bolt in one race and running 9.82 in another.
On Tuesday, he said he is poised to win the gold medal. (The manner in which he does this is disarming: He is undoubtedly talking trash, but he's so mellow, so Jamaican, that it sounds out of place). But here is what he said: "I've hit some great things in practice for the last couple of weeks. This is the first time that I've seen my coach that excited. All I have to do is go out there just like I have in the last two races and I'll do it.
"A lot of people are saying Usain and Tyson are strong finishers,'' he said. "But if I get out ahead of them, it doesn't matter how they're finishing. They won't even close on me.''
(It should be said that each of the Big Three feels this way, as if whomever is leading at 50 meters is guaranteed to win the race. This theory suggests that the leader won't fall apart, when in fact, the leader might very well fall apart. This much is true: Neither Powell nor Gay wants to be chasing Bolt, because while Bolt might not run anybody down, he has seldom been run down himself and with a great start could run an unreal time deep into the 9.6s).
Much has been made of the hypothesis that Bolt's rise this year has taken pressure off Powell. "For the first time, there is absolutely no pressure on Asafa at all,'' says 1996 Olympic gold medalist and former world record holder Donovan Bailey, a Jamaican-born Canadian who has known Powell since Powell was a young boy. "I really think that's going to help him.''
Gay disagrees. "Asafa is under pressure to get the world record back,'' he said.
Powell is certainly under pressure to get a gold medal. His newfound confidence has been tested in Beijing, where he says he has been drug-tested four times. "They took blood, a lot of blood,'' said Powell. "And I got very upset and I'm saying they took so much blood that we are going to be very weak for the finals of the 100 meters. I'm almost sure I'm going to be tested tomorrow. I don't know about anybody else, but they really are down on my case and my teammate, Michael Frater, and Usain. I accept how important it is... but it's just difficult.'' Does this sound like an excuse in waiting?
(One day earlier, Gay had said in a press conference that he had been drug-tested twice since arriving in Beijing. However, based on Powell's description, he has been in Beijing more than a week longer than Gay. Olympic athletes are subject to random blood-testing. ``We just knock on their door,'' said Dr. Patrick Schamasch, the International Olympic Committee's medical and scientific director. However, the process is not technically blood ``testing,'' in that it cannot produce a positive test at the Games. Instead, athletes' sample results are catalogued to be compared against future results.)
Saturday's 100-meter final could potentially be one of the best sprint races in history. Never before have three men with PRs under 9.8 seconds lined up in the same race. Just as intriguing is the head game. If Gay is, indeed, recovered from his hamstring strain, he can be counted on to run well. If Bolt gets out of the blocks, he will run fast; if he doesn't, who knows? Powell has run five of the eight fastest times in history. Bolt is the only other man who has been under 9.8 more than once and he's only run seven 100s in his life.
Doyle, the agent, said on Tuesday, "I've never seen Asafa so calm.''
And if that is true, it is an ominous sign for the others. But Powell must prove it true. In the most emotionally demanding race on the track, he must sweat only from exertion and not from fear. Saturday will tell, and not before.