Asafa Powell is back on top of Jamaica's sprinting medal hopes ahead of the IAAF World Championships in Beijing.
When the moment came for the the start of the men’s 100-meter dash at last month’s Diamond League meet in Lausanne, Switzerland, Donovan Powell was nowhere to be found in the stands at Stade de la Pontaise. None of the other members of former 100-meter world record holder Asafa Powell’s entourage had seen Donovan—Asafa's brother and a former sprinter himself—since warm-ups. Instead of watching from the grandstands among fans, Donovan had opted to cover his ears and listen to the race from behind the stands, closer to kebab and beer stands than the action on the track.
“I disappear,” Donovan says. “I get nervous before the gun goes off. As soon as it goes off, I’m all good. When I was running, I would never be like that. It’s just with Asafa.”
Donovan, 43, was once a rising star for Jamaica in the sprints, winning several medals at Caribbean championships in the late 1980s and early ’90s before donning the national kit for the indoor worlds and at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. Donovan Powell was good, but nothing like his brother.
The tension in Lausanne was nowhere near as overwhelming as it had been at the Jamaican National Trials in June. Before the start of the 100 there, Donovan had run some 800 meters away from Kingston's National Stadium at Independence Park. He'd put his hands over his ears until the crowd roared. The sound signaled to him that his brother had won his first national title since 2011.
That victory also marked the 32-year-old Asafa’s return to the national championship stage following a positive test for the banned stimulant oxilofrine in 2013 that had wiped away his hopes of competing at the world championships in Moscow later that summer. The six-month suspension brought the Powell brothers together, though, as Asafa left the M.V.P. Track Club, a prominent Jamaican training group, shortly after he resumed training.
“When things like [the suspension] happen, you learn who your true friends are, who are the people that support you and who has your back,” Asafa says. “I didn’t really get much of that after what happened. The best thing to turn to was family.”
The man with 90 sub-10-second performances, the most in history, had other options.
Donovan suggested calling Glenn Mills, the coach to world record holder Usain Bolt and other Olympic medalists. Asafa said no. Donovan suggested calling Michael Clarke, long-time coach at Jamaican sprint powerhouse Calabar High School. Asafa said no.
Instead Asafa packed his bags and moved to Austin, where Donovan runs a youth sprints program. The move has paid off and has Powell eyeing a spot on next week's world championship podium. It's a spot he has been expected to occupy for more than 10 years—even as Usain Bolt has dominated the sprint world since 2008.
It has also been more than a decade since Asafa Powell has been able to walk around the streets of Kingston without being recognized or having someone stop for a hug or selfie. He set the 100-meter world record of 9.77 in 2005, which stood until May 2008, when Bolt ran 9.72. While Bolt, who has since lowered the mark to 9.58, may be the fastest man in history, Powell is respected as the godfather who took sprinting to the next level in Jamaica.
“Even though he is the world record holder and can run very fast, people still have me ahead,” Powell says. “People believe in me.”
The Jamaican sprinting community finds itself in an unaccustomed state heading into the world championships.
Earlier this season, it appeared that Bolt was nowhere near his top form and that defending his two gold medals from the 2013 worlds in Moscow would be a tall order. Olympic silver medalist Yohan Blake failed make the national team heading to Beijing. Much as it was in 2004, Powell is the man on top of the performers’ list for Jamaica.
And the trend does not stop in the Caribbean. The 2004 Olympic gold medalist Justin Gatlin of the U.S., who served two doping sentences (testing positive for amphetamines after taking Adderall for 10 years to treat attention deficit disorder in 2001 and testing positive for testosterone in ’06), is now the year's fastest man, having run personal bests of 9.74 in the 100 and 19.57 in the 200—at the age of 33. Fellow American Tyson Gay, the 2007 world champion in both the 100 and 200, turned 33 on August 9 and will represent the U.S. in Beijing as well. Gay served a one-year doping ban from 2013 to 2014.
Sprinting's old guard is hanging on.
“The world needs me, Asafa Powell, to be on top,” Powell says. “I was there for many years and I think people would like to see me on top of the podium for a change. I should’ve been on top of the podium five or six times by now, but unfortunately I haven’t been able to catch that gold medal. I think for a change, I’m going to be on top of the podium.”
Gold has indeed eluded Powell, and many have been quick to suggest that he has a tendency to fold under pressure on the sport's biggest stages. The unfortunate timing of injuries—usually three to four weeks ahead of a championship—has been a factor in Powell's failures.
He underwent shoulder surgery before the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and tore his groin at the Jamaican national championship before the 2012 Olympics in London.
“People only realize what they see on TV. I think you’ll see a different me in Beijing. It’s not a mental thing,” Powell says. “If [Bolt] was to come and compete at the world championships, he’s going to get beaten. I just go into these races whether I’m healthy or not. People have beat me when I’m unhealthy. When I’m healthy it’s hard to beat me.”
Powell has backed up his talk this year, opening the season with a 10.08 performance at a low-key meet in Guadeloupe while facing a 2.4 head-wind and running on an old track surface. He came away from the blocks a little slower than his competitors but found another gear by the 30-meter mark and powered through for the win.
“At that moment, I knew I was back,” Powell says. “In training you can kind of tell where you’re at, but you definitely need that first competition to seal the deal.”
Seven days later, Powell roared again. This time in front of a packed house at the National Stadium in Kingston with a 9.84 victory at the Jamaica Invitational. That mark was his fastest in nearly four years. Time was rolling backwards for the veteran.
“I’ve been on top of the game for many years,” Powell says. “Since 2012, I’ve been the second or third-fastest Jamaican. I’ve always been in it. I didn’t go anywhere. I am the fastest Jamaican right now and I’m trying to maintain that.”
When Powell finishes a race, many times he barely appears to have broken a sweat after an effortless sub-10 second 100-meter dash. In 2008, he accomplished the feat 15 times in a single season.
"Maurice Greene used to wake up out of bed and run 9.9," Gatlin says. "If that's the case then Asafa Powell runs 9.9 in his sleep and sleepwalks it. The guy is a great athlete and when he is in the zone, he is on. He's a tough opponent to beat."
Powell's dream is to finish his career with a tally of 130 legal sub-10 races. At least that’s what he told reporters at a press conference in Lausanne.
“That was all in the moment,” Powell says. “I’m definitely trying to go well beyond 100. I don’t think 130 is impossible but I don’t know if I have much time left to do it.”
Gay raised his eyebrows and let out a laugh when Powell proposed the number at the press conference.
“He’s a unique individual. When it’s all said and done, I don’t think there will be too many Asafa Powells.” Gay says. “Before Usain Bolt, he was the big Jamaican. He changed the game.”
Aside from his plans for a new modeling calendar and for celebrating the 100th sub-10 when it comes, Powell struggles to envision a future timeline for his career. Bolt, who turns 29 on Aug. 21, has already said that 2017 will be his final year of competition. Retirement is a word not in Powell's vocabulary just yet.
“I don’t think I’ve accomplished what I’ve set forth for myself within the sport,” Powell says. “If I don’t I’ve still had a great time within the sport and done a ton of incredible things. I’ll still be happy when I retire. Maybe in... ah! I don’t know. It’s hard to tell.”
Gold is one of those unaccomplished goals for both Asafa and Donovan.
Donovan was a CARIFTA Games silver medalist in 1989 and went on to represent Jamaica at the ’97 World Championships and 2000 Olympics. He was also supposed to race at the 1995 World Championship, but was banned for three months after a positive test for the stimulant ephedrine. He retired from the sport in 2002, before his brother's rise.
From Asafa's reception at track meets from fans to his inclusion on the IAAF Diamond League circuit, there has little negative reaction from the track and field community upon his return from the 2013 suspension.
“People understand and know the true Asafa Powell,” he says. “They know I’m real and there is nothing fake about me. I think that’s why it was a lot easier for me to come back. I was devastated and it was something that I wasn’t used to. It was like killing someone in my family.”
Personal tragedy has also strengthened the bond between Asafa and Donovan, as one of their four other brothers, Michael, was shot dead in a New York City taxi in 2002. Just one year later, another brother, Vaughn, died of a heart attack. While Asafa's spikes from his 2005 world record are encased in an office, a gold medal from Beijing would find a different home within the family.
“Donovan was never able to get an individual medal,” Asafa says. “This would have the same feeling as if he was the one on top of the podium. It would mean a lot to us.”
At the moment, Powell appears to be the most likely sprinter to contest Gatlin for gold in Beijing. Gay was visibly impressed at Gatlin’s fitness in their race in Lausanne and said it would take “a lot” to close the gap on the current world leader.
Bolt had an encouraging showing at the London Diamond League meet in late July, winning in 9.87 victory. Some reports say he may be in top form in Beijing to restore order and keep a vilified Gatlin from the top of the podium.
Says Powell, “We all have great seasons, but Gatlin is not untouchable; 9.74 seconds is something that I’ve surpassed.”
Powell has only run faster than 9.74 once—a 9.72 in September 2008. He said the goal for 2015 was to surprise himself. When later asked to clarify what he meant, Powell laughed.
“I never thought about that. Just doing something I’ve never done before in my life. If I do that then there’s no doubt then I’ll be at the top of the podium. For me, I think it’s running faster than I ever have and if I can do that there’s no one to beat me.”
Gold would not astonish him, as it's hard for something more than 10 years in the making to come as a surprise.