To the interloper, the Olympic 100 meters is but a 10-second event. What's shorter? A drag race? Bull-riding?
In truth, it's much more than the 10 seconds between the starter's pistol and finish line. It is the epic preparation (and performance) required merely to earn a place as one of the eight Olympic 100-meter finalists on Aug. 16. It is the unreal pressure on a sprinter to deliver the contrary acts of speed and relaxation at the same. It is the relentless subtext of steroid use. It is, in fact, an opera compressed into those 10 seconds, an endless array of storylines hanging in the air after the word "Set.''
But as he sits in the blocks, I will wonder what the rounds have taken from him and where the pressure lives in his head. Last May, I sat with him in a hotel lobby in Kingston, and he seemed like a U.S. teenager, fighting back the temptation to check his texts while we talked. Is he ready for this stage?
Gay is a sweet guy, accommodating and honest with the media, deferential to elders and respectful of opponents. He deserves a chance at winning this race at full strength, but it seems unlikely he will get it. We will sit and stand in the stadium as the rounds unfold, watching first to see if Bolt can finish his races and then if Gay can finish them as fast.
And whatever happens, there will be whispers. Who is clean? Who is dirty? This is always the case in sprinting, where the elephant never leaves the room. There is the moment of celebration, when the winner throws his arms skyward and a stadium looks at the clock, but then there is the skepticism that lasts a lifetime.
Which is a lot longer than 10 seconds.