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The three-man race for 100 glory

BEIJING -- Do the eyes lie or do the eyes tell the truth? If they tell the truth, the Olympic 100 meters is over. Break out the gold medal, give it to 21-year-old Jamaican world record holder Usain Bolt and run the race for silver and bronze. Check that; give the silver to his countryman, Asafa Powell and run the race for bronze.

And if the eyes tell the truth, world champion Tyson Gay of the U.S., who six weeks ago was one of the Big Three, looks very much like a man with a dodgy hamstring who hasn't run a race in a month-and-a-half. Which he is. And if they tell the truth, Churandy Martina of the Netherlands Antilles and RichardThompson of Trinidad and Tobago (and LSU) will be major players in Saturday night's semifinals in Beijing.

The Olympic 100 meters is contested in four rounds over two days, a mini-series of races in which very fast men try to advance to the final while expending as little effort as possible and showing little of their emotional and physical hands. It is a game of poker in spikes. Opponents and observers try to draw conclusions for every stride and every reaction. It can be a dangerous and misleading game. Or it can be dead-on accurate.

On Friday night in the packed National Stadium (a.k.a. the Birds Nest, where every Chinese athlete's effort -- whether dismal or strong -- is treated with thunderous roars, seemingly celebrating the effort alone), Gay ran 10.09 seconds to advance to semifinals. The performance was not impressive; Gay finished a full tenth of a second behind Thompson, a respectable sprinter who is not in Gay's league when Gay is at his best.

This is not entirely shocking. Gay has not raced since July 5, when he injured his left hamstring in the quarterfinals of the 200 meters at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore. This is what he said after his race in Beijing: "I felt really good and relaxed. I just wanted to get through.''

In a vacuum, it's fine that Gay said this, which is a very typical sprinter's comment after the second round of a four-round event. However, Gay said this only after climbing over a 3-foot-high plastic barrier in an attempt to avoid talking to media (very uncharacteristic for Gay). Beyond that, he didn't look like he felt good or relaxed; he looked like he was struggling.

Shortly after his race came Bolt's quarterfinal. Bolt ran 9.92 seconds despite shutting down all engines 60 meters into the race. His time was .07 seconds faster than any other qualifier, which is a very wide margin. It was back in New York on May 31 when Bolt broke the world record that U.S. sprinter Darvis (Doc) Patton (who also qualified on Friday) said Bolt made the rest of the field look like little children. Which he did.

In the next race after Bolt's, Powell cruised through his heat in 10.02 seconds, also shutting down early. Shortly after Powell's heat, the two Jamaicans waltzed through the media interview area together without stopping, except to embrace a Jamaican reporter. Powell had run the morning with an upset stomach, but told the Jamaican reporter than he feels better.

In summary, the eyes saw a Jamaican one-two sweep in the making. Kim Collins, the wiry 32-year-old veteran from St. Kitts and Nevis, saw something different, and something very different from those who have insisted that the Olympic 100 is a three-man race.

"That's a joke,'' said Collins. "In the semifinals, there will be 16 men who can run 10 seconds. We don't know who is going to run fast or who is going to run slow. We don't know who has peaked too early and won't be able to peak again. The only thing I can tell you is that it's going to be a walk in the park.''

Collins also warned his questioners against putting too much stock in early round heats, especially Bolt's race. "There was no one next to him, so you can do that,'' he said. "You can't do that in the final.''

Other runners talked similarly. "I've seen races like [Bolt's] before in my career,'' said Patton. "It was a quarterfinal race. You can't worry about that. Once you get to the final, anything can happen.''

Thompson said, "I'm not going to get excited about a quarterfinal race. I'm not going to worry about other people. Time and time again at the Olympic Games you see somebody who upstages everybody.''

A picture comes to mind. In the 2004 Olympic quarterfinals, Powell laid a humiliation on 2000 Olympic champion Maurice Greene, floating past him in the stretch and looking over at the former world-record holder. It looked like Powell would jog in the final. Instead, he ran tight and finished fifth. Justin Gatlin of the U.S. won the gold medal and Green got a bronze to finish his career. In the Athens semifinals, U.S. sprinters Sean Crawford looked dominant, yet didn't medal in the final, finishing fourth.

It was impossible to watch Bolt's race on Friday night here and not sense that something remarkable could happen in Saturday's final. Bolt looked like the next stage in the evolution of the 100 meters, a young man who could run under 9.70 seconds in the final, and perhaps far under.

And Gay looked beaten, which would be sad. He looked like a man who is asking too much of his body too soon after an injury and with too little preparation.

But sometimes the eyes lie. Perhaps Bolt will start poorly in the final and tie up, giving the field a chance. Perhaps Gay is just working out kinks and avoided media not because he senses doom, but because a TV reporter grabbed his arm in the morning after the early heats. Perhaps Powell will revert to his old twitchy ways in the final.

The race will tell. But as for Collins' getaway, post-quarterfinal prediction: "Tyson, Bolt and Asafa, none of them will win?" You can ditch that one.

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