LONDON--Sports predictions are always tricky, but here's a firm one: the Jamaican women will do worse as a group in the 100-meters than they did in Beijing.
Not exactly going out on a limb, considering Jamaican women went 1-2-2 in Beijing. The only way they could improve in London is a 1-1-2 or a 1-1-1. And by the looks of the field, a medal-sweep would be a stretch this year -- even for Jamaica -- in a final that may well see the favorites taking their assigned seats in grade-school fashion: JAM/USA/JAM/USA/JAM/USA.
And the woman to beat is a JAM. Australia's Melissa Breen had it right in the first-round yesterday when she came through the mix zone and said, "It was an honor to be in a race with the fastest woman in the world." She was talking about Jamaica's Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, the 25-year-old reigning Olympic champ. Fraser-Pryce ran 10.70 in June at the Jamaican Olympic trials, making her the fourth fastest woman in history, behind only three Americans: Florence Griffith-Joyner, Carmelita Jeter, and Marion Jones. (And only because not every one of Jones' results was stripped for doping offenses.)
The trademark of Fraser-Pryce, who was still a student at the University of Technology when she won gold in '08, is a blazing start. She comes out of the blocks at such an angle that it looks as if she's on the verge of face-planting on the Mondo. (Which she nearly did two weeks ago. Racing the 100 in a different stadium in London, she came out of the blocks low and stumbled, barely keeping her footing and finishing in last place.) When all goes well, though, Fraser-Pryce tends to carry that angle through the entire race, with her head and shoulders out in front of her hips, as if she's running down a hill.
On Friday, in the first round, before anyone even asked, Fraser-Pryce had one word to describe her start: "tentative", she said. Was that the plan for the first-round start? "It's never the plan", she said. Nonetheless, she was in control of the race well before half way, and coasted to the line in 11.00. When she doesn't stumble, Fraser-Pryce is the complete package. She starts, she finishes, and she displays a Bolt-ian cool before the crowd. When SI asked her in Jamaica last year if she was nervous in Beijing, she flashed her characteristically shy smile and replied: "I think I was more nervous for Champs than the Olympics," referring to the raucous Jamaican national high school championships.
When sprinters talk about putting a competitor under pressure, they're usually talking about getting a hot start and forcing the other runners to give chase, such that it might ruin their relaxation and cause their hard-earned form to deteriorate. The women's 100 final in London is going to be a case of the pressure-appliers and the chasers.
The United States' Tianna Madison may be an even better starter than Fraster-Pryce. The 27-year-old Madison won the world championships in '05, when she was a sophomore at Tennessee. But that was, amazingly, in the long jump. Because she wanted to accept the $60,000 in prize money for the win, Madison turned pro, and soon -- with a feeling of alienation from the people she had previously trained with -- transferred from Tennessee. Over the next several years, Madison stagnated as a jumper, and this year she turned her full attention to sprinting. On January 1, 2012 -- 216 days ago, as Madison is quick to say -- she sat down on the couch with her husband and decided for the first time, she says, "to train hard. Period. This was a lifestyle change and an attitude change." She gave up junk food and started shedding weight like ships shed ballast, losing 20 pounds since last September.
In March, she announced herself -- and her blistering start -- when she took bronze at the indoor world championships. As to whether her long jumping might have somehow helped her start: "I don't, maybe just the explosiveness," Madison says. Her weakness is later in the race, as she tends to get caught toward the line. (Which is exactly what happened in the first round, when she burst of the blocks and was tracked down by Nigeria's Blessing Okagbare, who smoked a 10.93 -- to Madison's 10.97 -- and figures to a medal contender.)
Of all the runners who are going to be under the pressure applied by the starts of Fraser-Pryce and Madison, none of the favorites figures to be farther back than U.S. star Allyson Felix. Felix doesn't get slow starts in the 100, she is slow starts in the 100. And she knows it. "I'm all legs," says Felix, who is, well, all legs. "So it's hard to compete [at the start] against shorter sprinters who are more proportionate. It's always been tough figuring out my angles and how to get out well."
But, since "I've had a bad start for a really long time," says Felix, "I try to just be a patient runner. I try not to panic if I get out behind." And she will get out behind. Of her start Friday, she said, "I have to get my start together, because I missed it completely."
If Fraser-Pryce and Madison are notoriously quick starters, and Felix a notoriously slow starter, the other top contenders are somewhat streakier. American Carmelita Jeter, who won the U.S. Olympic trials in June, on Friday ran 10.83, almost certainly the fastest time ever run in a non-final, given that only 19 other women have ever run faster in any race in history. Based on that run, Jeter would seem to be the favorite, but unlike the other big name sprinters, she actually ran through the line. Not to mention, nearly all of the athletes walking under the stadium raved about the speed of the track. (It's a Mondo surface, which is the same as some other world class tracks, but, as American 400-meter hurdler Michael Tinsley put it Friday: "This is new. It's not soft, so you don't sink. You can feel yourself on top of the track.") Still, no track is so fast that 10.84 in a round isn't extraordinary, at least no track that isn't down the side of a mountain.
Jamaica's Veronica Campbell-Brown is another of the streaky starters. Campbell-Brown, at age 30, is the sprinter who has it all. Three Olympic golds and four indoor and outdoor world championship golds. All except an Olympic gold in the 100. (She won the 200 in '04 and '08.) The 100 title would be cherry on top of her sundae, to use Michael Phelps' terminology. Campbell-Brown won her first round race easily in 10.94, but she hasn't been starting well.
Ato Boldon, the four-time Olympic sprint medalist, and NBC track and field commentator, says that "Veronica Campbell-Brown has been hurt the most by the [one-false start and you're out] rule. If you know you're a good starter, you don't worry about the rule. But she's a streaky starter. That rule has almost ruined her starts. She has not started the same since then, and certainly not in a championship setting."
Earlier in the week, Campbell-Brown claimed she pays the rule no mind, but Boldon feels that it's more of a subconscious worry that keeps a streaky starter from using the rhythm of the race starter's commands to coil for the start. Insofar as reaction time to the gun is part of the start, Boldon may have a point. Campbell-Brown's reaction times in the 100 at Olympics and world championships prior to the implementation of the rule in 2010:
2004 Athens: 0.1992005 Helsinki: 0.1392007 Osaka: 0.1672009 Berlin: 0.135
And after the rule:2011 Daegu: 0.234
Then again, that's one race. And reaction time in and of itself might be overvalued in many cases. A 1995 IAAF study looked at the predictive power of reaction time on overall race time at two world championships, and found that it was often overrated. The 100, however -- and the women's 100 specifically -- was where it was by far the most important. Jamaican Kerron Stewart, the '08 silver medalist, rounds out the Jamaican trio. Stewart got a very poor start, but clawed her way to third, and could be dangerous if she avoids another Felix-esque beginning.
On Saturday night, expect the U.S.-Jamaica rivalry to be on display, along with the rivalry between the fast starters and the late-race hunters. And expect lightning fast, perhaps historic times. (Jeter's 10.64 in '09 is the closest anyone has ever come to the 10.49 Flo-Jo ran in '88.) As Nigeria's Gloria Asumnu, who ran 11.13 Friday to advance to the semi-final, put it: "When you push off this track, you get something back. You can feel it. There are going to be some very fast times."