David Epstein
Tuesday August 7th, 2012

LONDON -- There was a moment Sunday night, after the 100-meter final, when both Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake were in the interview zone beneath Olympic Stadium at the same time. Blake was slowly making his way through the so-called "mixed zone" -- fielding as many autograph requests as legitimate questions -- when a booming voice addressed him from above. "You hear that John?" It was Usain Bolt, referring to Blake in the funny way he does over a loudspeaker, and making sure that Blake heard him say that the 200 is his event.

It was a funny moment between training partners, but also a deadly serious one. Both men consider the 200 to be their best event. "We've got speed endurance," Blake said.

Both men advanced from the first round of the 200 Tuesday, Blake in 20.38 and Bolt in 20.39, with the most lax efforts that have ever produced those times. Bolt was looking from side to side while Blake nearly walked across the finish, a jarring sight given the men behind them straining and leaning for the line.

There's something about the one-curve and one-straight race that brings out the toddler in sprinters. They don't like sharing it. American sprint star Allyson Felix is world class in the 100, 200 and 400, but has called the 200 "my baby." Nickel Ashmeade, a Jamaican sprinter and high school teammate of Blake at St. Jago, has said that he likes the 100, but "the 200, that's Ashmeade." Perhaps it's because the race is short enough to be a pure sprint, but long enough that the outcome isn't so contingent on the caprice of the start. The 200, then, goes to the man who truly has the top speed. There's no blowing out of the blocks and hanging on like in the 100. Pretenders will get hunted down.

The men's 200 final, like the 100 final before it, should be the best 200 from front to back that has ever been run. As Blake, who shredded the bottom of his spandex shorts to give him the "Beast look" for the 200, put it: "The track is fast, and Usain is fast."

Before his first-round race, Bolt played air drums, smoothed his hairline on the video screen,and did his famous To Di World pose. Even the stolid track worker behind his blocks started laughing. There was a time when Bolt would get nervous. (Look at him here, in 2002, in a lane inside Allyson Felix's brother Wes, rocking and cracking his knuckles before he becomes the youngest world junior champ ever in the 200.) But now he playfully finds his perfect level of arousal to feel comfortable, and nowhere is he more comfortable than in the 200. "For me, it's just my favorite event," Bolt said after advancing to the semifinal.

The 200 is also an event that he has said repeatedly he needs to win to be a legend. (Prior to the Games, Bolt said that it wouldn't be the end of the world if he didn't win gold in the 100 and 200, but then -- in what smacks of a coordinated message -- the talking point shifted and became that he needs to win both because his goal is to be a legend.) He'll have his hands full, probably more so than in the 100.

Last year in Brussels, Blake ran 19.26 in the 200 -- the second fastest time ever to Bolt's 19.19 -- with a reaction time slower than you hitting your alarm clock. With even an average start, Blake would be the current world record holder. And he did it with a poor curve run -- he didn't turn his shoulders coming out of the curve -- on the world's widest curve. Blake ran the fastest last 100 (about 9.08) that has ever been run. And that includes Usain Bolt's world record.

For Bolt and the Beast, the 100 was the preamble and the 200 is the real showdown. With a win, Bolt fulfills his legend mission, while Blake will fight to get out from under the all-encompassing voice on the loudspeaker. Blake won a world championship gold, but knows that he needs this to earn "a more deeper respect," he said. "Once people say I was in his shadow because he was the man. He is the man, I should say, of track and field and for me to move away, making my own name I think is really good."

We'll see who moves away on the final straight Thursday.

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