DES MOINES, Iowa -- In warm twilight Thursday at Drake Stadium, 16 men advanced from first-round heats into Friday night's semifinals of the 100 meters at the USA Track and Field national championships. A modest gathering of track fans cheered politely. It was the first round, on the first night. Nothing big was expected.
Yet there's something more at work. Sprinters could always make noise. Even amidst the quiet that comes every four years, when neither Olympic nor World Championship team positions are at stake, fast men could always awaken the national championships by the spreading the scent of greatness. Travis Padgett and Walter Dix were the first and third-fastest qualifiers Thursday night and even though Dix has two Olympic bronze medals in his closet (or somewhere), the only scent they can spread these days is desperation.
1) Usain Bolt2) Tyson Gay (and Gay has his own desperation to deal with. Keep reading).
A brief round of history: The United States was once the place to find sprint greatness, through a long run -- occasionally interrupted (Armin Hary, Hasley Crawford, Valery Borzov) -- that essentially blanketed the modern history of the sport. If you could win a 100-meter title in the U.S.A. you were contending for a gold medal.
Last in that long line of greats was (was?) Gay, who won both the 100- and 200-meter titles at the 2007 World Championships in Osaka, Japan, setting the stage for a run at both Olympic titles. Along comes Bolt a year later. (Actually, he didn't come along. He had been around. But in '08 and forward, he famously got a lot better). From May of '08 through August of '09, Bolt took the 100-meter world record down a generation-skipping .16 seconds, from 9.74 seconds to 9.58; and in the 200 meters lowered Michael Johnson's supposedly unassailable 19.32 to 19.19 (into a slight headwind).
Bolt is 23 years old (and now a worldwide celebrity who gobbles Gatorade products in the same commercials at Dwight Howard and Peyton Manning). Assuming he stays healthy, motivated and clean (or that he's clean in the first place), he has taken Olympic and World Championship medals and world records off the table for next -- you pick: five, eight, 10 years. "It's in the back of your mind,'' said Padgett on Thursday night after his heat, which he won is a leisurely 10.23 seconds in to a brisk headwind. "You do think about it, because you're going to have to go up against those guys.''
Start with Gay, who is not running in Iowa because of nagging pain in his right hamstring area that previously caused him to miss the June 12 Adidas Grand Prix in New York City. His career was just blossoming when Bolt ran past him physically and metaphorically, trouncing Gay in a 100-meter race on the night of May 31, 2008 at Icahn Stadium on New York City's Randalls Island. Bolt ran 9.72 seconds to break Asafa Powell's world record by .02. Gay has not beaten Bolt since.
However. In fact, Double However. Five weeks after losing to Bolt in New York in 2008, Gay injured his left hamstring in the 200 meters at the Olympic Trials. Last year he ran nearly the entire season with injuries to both groin muscles. And this year, there's the hamstring issue.
"Three years I've had something going on,'' said Gay when I spoke to him this week. "The hamstring was an injury and the groin was an injury. I don't want to call this hamstring an injury. I had an MRI and it showed nothing is wrong. But it hurts. Maybe it's something with my lower back or my sciatic nerve.'' OK. Three years of injuries. During that time (the second 'However'), Gay has taken his 100-meter time down to a U.S. record 9.69 seconds (last Sept. 20 in Shanghai) and his 200-meter best down to 19.58 seconds (last May in New York). He is clearly the second-best sprinter in history, yet the gap between him and Bolt is so wide that he might as well be the 100th-best. He is Sham to Bolt's Secretariat. And he knows it. "I'm still hungry,'' says Gay. "I think Asafa Powell (who has run a world best 9.82 and also an into-the-wind 9.83 this year; predictable work by a man who shrinks from championship pressure and thrives in its absence) is hungry.'' Gay has studied his races. He has studied Bolt's races. He has studied their races against each other. "One thing is if I could just get out in front of him,'' says Gay. "And then hold him off. I haven't been able to do that in our races. Or, the other way is to open up my stride, make it longer to try to cut down the advantage he has over me being six-foot-five.'' (Gay is 6-0). This year, Gay has trained exclusively with Lance Brauman, with whom he began working with in 2003, and hasn't been able to meet up Jon Drummond, who refines technique after Brauman lays the fitness foundation. The two coaches take differing views of how to take down Bolt. ``Lance says it's just a matter of getting healthy,'' says Bolt. ``J.D. says it's technique.'' Gay hopes to be healthy enough to run in the July 3 Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Oregon, and then several races in Europe after that.And then there is a new piece to this puzzle: Bolt is currently injured for the first time since becoming Superman, sidelined with an Achilles injury. It's supposedly not serious. But as NBC analyst and four-time Olympic medalist Ato Boldon said Thursday, "I never had an Achilles injury, but the reputation is it never really goes away. Hence the term Achilles heel.'' Says Gay, "This is the first time he's had to deal with that. We'll see how he does.'' Meanwhile, an entire generation of sprinters lines up behind Gay, just for the right to be the guy who chases Bolt (and sometimes Powell). Dix is most emblematic of that bunch. The arc of his career is similar to Gay's. On May 26, 2007, he ran 19.69 for 200 meters. At the time, was a 21-year-old junior at Florida State and he was running faster than Gay, who had run 19.70 the previous summer. "A lot of people viewed me running Nineteen-six when I was 21 , to be the next big thing,'' says Dix. Gay blew past Dix like Bolt would later blow past Gay. Sort of. While Gay was hurt in Beijing, Dix won two bronzes, but still has never run faster than that 19.69 and his 100 is only down to 9.91. There are mitigating issues. Last year in his post-Olympic season, he was stymied by a contract dispute with his former agent and a hamstring injury. Still, he's a long way behind Gay and even further behind Bolt. Asked Thursday night if he views the Big Two as "catchable,'' he said, "For me, definitely.'' It's the way they all have to talk. But until it happens, it's only talk.