LONDON -- It looms as one of the most complex and intriguing races in recent Olympic sprint history. Yet in another way, Sunday's Olympic men's 100-meter final can be distilled down to the simplest of uncertainties: Which Usain Bolt will fold himself into the blocks?
Will it be the videogame character who hijacked the Beijing Olympics and then 12 months later took the world record down to an absurd 9.58 seconds at the 2009 world championships in Berlin, or will it be the hard-partying, car-crashing, false starting, oft-injured Bolt who was beaten by Yohan Blake in the 100 meters and 200 meters at the Jamaican Olympic Trials in late June
Track and field is largely a niche sport that bursts from its little bubble every four years, so it's likely that a large portion of the public (surely a big part of the American public) knows Bolt only from Beijing, and thus is blissfully unaware that they might not see Rocket Man on Sunday night in the 100-meter final.
Families will gather around the television on Sunday night (or around the computer screen on Sunday afternoon), expecting to see Bolt redux, running off the screen and into the kitchen or wherever. That's the Bolt who gave a NBC an unexpected gift four years ago, helping drive their age 18-to-34 demographic ratings stunningly upward after Michael Phelps got out of the pool in 2008.
That superhuman Bolt hasn't been around for a solid three seasons, as Bolt has fought training malaise and injuries (mostly to his lower back), and mixed the occasionally dominant race with periods of vulnerability and inactivity. He ran a world record 9.69 -- famously pulling up to celebrate -- to win the 100-meter gold medal in Beijing. He ran a world record 9.58 -- famously not pulling up -- to win the 2009 world title. His fastest time since Berlin is 9.76, still faster than any human except Blake (9.75 this year), Asafa Powell of Jamaica (9.72 in 2008 and 9.74 in 2007) and Tyson Gay of the U.S. (9.69 in 2009 and 9.71 behind Bolt in Berlin).
But Bolt missed the second half of the 2010 season with back injuries and struggled to get fast; he didn't break 9.88 until September and lost the world title in the 100 meters to Blake when he false-started out of the race. Bolt has been under 9.86 three times this year, but not since early June.
Hence, the question: can the 2012 Bolt summon up the 2008 Bolt and became the first man since Carl Lewis in 1984 and '88 to repeat victory in the 100 meters (and take a step toward becoming the first man in history to repeat in both the 100 and 200)?
Some very knowledgeable sprint experts say yes. "There have been some nagging injuries, sure," says Donovan Bailey, the Jamaican-born Canadian who won the Olympic 100-meter gold medal in 1996. "People are fixating on that [Olympic Trials] race, and what they choose to ignore is that Usain ran three steps out of the blocks and then stood up, and still almost ran down a guy [Blake] who was running 9.75." (Bolt actually finished in 9.86, well behind Blake, but he was gaining slightly at the end.)
"I hated practice when I was competing," says Bailey. "Usain is the same way. But when the lights go on, you're going to see a different man."
Maurice Greene, who like Bailey is a former world record holder and a 2000 Olympic gold medalist, disagrees strongly.
"He's not the same runner he was in Beijing [at 2008 Olympics and Berlin [at 2009 world championships]," says Greene. "Don't get me wrong; Usain still has the ability to win. But he's got a ton of technical problems right now. His body position is all wrong. His shoulders are supposed to be over his hips, but they're way back behind his hips. People have been saying, 'He's working, he's working?' But is he? He's never really worked out in his whole career. He's never developed that mentality of going back and fixing things. And when you've been doing things one way for two years, you don't just change them overnight."
(An aside: Last fall I met with Bolt for a long one-on-one interview in Los Angeles. One of the first things I did was cue up videos of his loss to Gay in the 200 meters at the 2007 world championships in Osaka and then his gold medal 200 meters in Beijing, and I asked Bolt to compare the races.
"I was all wrong in that  race," said Bolt. "I was too weak, I would struggle at the end of races."
If you watch the video from Osaka and compare it to the video from Olympic Trials held in Kingston in June -- even though it's a 100 vs. a 200 -- there are distinct similarities. The Beijing/Berlin Bolt is tight and sharp, and starts crisply. The Osaka/Kingston Bolt is sloppy and tires near the end of his races.)
Another issue is that Bolt has been starting relatively slowly for a year, since his false start in Daegu. In his fastest races, his starts were terrific, but while he won't admit it, it's possible that he always anticipated the gun slightly, and now he's unnerved by having to wait for it. At 6-5, he shouldn't start fast, but in his best races, he has.
Perhaps Bolt has actually fixed all his physical and technical problems. Perhaps he is such a transcendent performer that despite those physical and technical problems he will dominate the 100 meters Sunday night and unveil a set of new dance moves, extending the legend.
"He's the only guy who's been where we haven't been," says Gay. "He's the Olympic champion. He knows what it takes."
"Nine-six [9.6 something] is going to win the race," says Bailey. "Somebody is going to have to run a perfect race to beat Usain."
Yet, that all seems vaguely unlikely. What seems more likely is that Bolt will run a very good race, but he will not dominate. That will bring others into the hunt -- most notably, Blake, who is called "The Beast," for the ferocity of his training.
"When my coach gives me a program,'' says Blake, "I damage it."
Blake, 22, trains every day with Bolt under coach Glen Mills, a partnership of opponents that's similar to when Greene and current NBC analyst Ato Boldon were training together in Los Angeles (under coach John Smith) and competing for global championship medals. Blake crept toward the throne a year ago as Bolt struggled to regain form from his back injury in 2010. He awakened the entire sport 19 days after Daegu when he ran 19.26 in the 200 meters at a race in Brussels, just .07 off Bolt's world record and under Michael Johnson's long-untouchable 19.32 from the 1996 Olympics.
(Even Bailey, a Bolt fan, is less certain that Bolt can win the 100 meters over Blake: "I think Usain will win the 100," says Bailey, "but I'm not sure about his speed endurance in the 200.").
What is remarkable about Blake's victory over Bolt in the Jamaican Trials is that Blake's start was unremarkable, scarcely better than Bolt's. Yet Blake darted ahead of Bolt early. "Yohan had an amazing drive phase," says Bailey, referring to that portion of the race that comes immediately after the start, when athletes are running with their head low, before rising into a full sprinting position. From there, Bolt only gained slightly, and only at the end. (In the Kingston 200 meters, the contrast was even more stark: Blake flat-out ran down Bolt, which Bolt has said would never happen to him).
The third Jamaican in the race is the enigmatic Asafa Powell, 29, who has run 79 sub-10-second 100-meter races, which is more than any sprinter in history. Yet his record in championship races is abysmal -- he has brilliant starts followed by tight, struggling finishes. Putting it kindly, he has not handled pressure well. It was Powell who begat Bolt and Blake, ushering in the Jamaican sprint renaissance in 2004, but then finishing disappointing fifth in the Olympic final. He was fifth again in Beijing and also has two bronze medals (behind Gay in 2007 and Bolt in 2009) at the world championships. He is nearing the end of his career, and Boldon says, "Don't sleep on Asafa Powell, maybe after all those disappointments, this is his Olympic Games."
It's a valid theory. After all the pressure and all the failure, there is little pressure on Powell. He has run his best when alone -- in obscure meets far from media and on the anchor leg of Jamaica's 4X100-meter relay, when he's been given a huge lead.
Then there are the Americans. After Gay won the world titles in the 100 and 200 meters in 2007, he loomed as the Olympic favorite, a status that was robbed first when Bolt suddenly decided to run the 100 meters and commandeered it, and second when Gay was injured running the 200 meters at the '08 Olympic Trials in Eugene.
He ran his 9.69 a year later and continued to run well in 2010, before his body gave out in 2011, necessitating right hip surgery in July of that year. His comeback since has been inspiring: He ran 9.86 and made the Olympic team behind Justin Gatlin's 9.80 at the Trials, and he has won two races since. Yet he continues to compensate for discomfort and surgical repairs.
"If you watch him," says Greene, "He eases out of the blocks, and then floors it and tries to catch up with everybody. I think's he's doing that because he doesn't want to put his body in those positions you get into when you start aggressively. He's protecting himself. Maybe he'll just go for it in the final, and if he gets hurt, he gets hurt. But he can't lay back, because Usain, Asafa, Yohan.... Those guys will be gone and he won't catch up."
Gay understands the stakes. He has said that these are likely his last Olympic Games. And the lack of an Olympic medal, he said, "Is like a missing piece of my heart."
Gatlin missed something, too: Four years of his career. He won the 2004 Olympic gold medal (over Powell and Greene, among others) and doubled in the 100 and 200 at the 2005 worlds. He equaled the world record in 2006 but shortly afterward tested positive for "testosterone or its precursors," and served a four-year suspension that ended in June of 2010. Slowly, he has improved since, culminating in that 9.80 victory at the Trials, which is officially his personal best, since his one faster time was expunged from the books.
Gatlin has been by turns emotional and distant in his return. He ran for nearly two years without a shoe and apparel sponsor, until he signed in January with Chinese company Xtep. He was blackballed by meet promoters who did not want their name associated with his. Many in the British media who support lifetime bans have argued that Gatlin does not belong in London. All of this has given him a deep emotional response.
"When I was walking to the starting line for the final in Eugene," Gatlin says, "I had tears in my eyes, just thinking about everything I've been through."
Even as track insiders marveled at Gatlin's comeback, few thought that he would run as fast as 9.80, Hence, it's perilous to assume that he can't run faster. Like Powell, he starts explosively and reliably, and seems unbothered by the one-false-start-and-out rule that has spooked many sprinters (even if they do not admit it). "With that start," says Boldon, "you can't rule him out. That start it always there."
There is a third American, Ryan Bailey, who trains with two-time Olympic medalist Walter Dix in California and benefitted from Dix's hamstring injury at the Trials to grab the third spot. Keston Bledman of Trinidad is the only runner who has gone under 9.90 this year.
Yet any analysis of the race returns to the big man and his long stride. My picks:
1) Yohan Blake, Jamaica
2) Usain Bolt, Jamaica
3) Tyson Gay, USA
4) Justin Gatlin, USA
5) Asafa Powell, Jamaica
6) Ryan Bailey, USA