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The Phenom

July 28, 2008
July 28, 2008

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July 28, 2008

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The Phenom

The record holder and the world champion were set to duel for the Olympic 100 meters title. Then along came 6'5" Usain Bolt, previously a specialist in the 200, who blew past everyone

Usain BOLT

This is an article from the July 28, 2008 issue

Tyson GAY

Asafa POWELL

The Beijing gamesbeckoned, far in the distance, as three sprinters aligned themselves lastwinter for a run at the grandest title in track and field—Olympic 100-meterchampion. They had clearly defined roles: the favorite, the record holder, theupstart. ¬∂ Tyson Gay of the U.S. was the reigning world champion in the 100 andwould be center stage for the upcoming season. "New responsibility," hesaid. ¬∂ Asafa Powell of Jamaica had the world record, having run the 100 in9.74 seconds last September in Rieti, Italy—but only after he had been beatendecisively by Gay in the World Track and Field Championships two weeks earlierin Osaka, Japan. Powell had been favored going into the worlds, and after histhird-place finish a nasty word circulated in the track underground: choker."We all heard what people were saying about Asafa, and he heard ittoo," said Bruce James, president of Powell's MVP Track Club in Kingston."It was unfair, but Asafa was down and disappointed." ¬∂ Usain Bolt,another Jamaican, had long been a prodigy in the 200 meters, but last summer hemade good on a deal with his coach, a grumpy, 59-year-old islander named GlenMills. "I wanted to run the 100, not just the 200," says Bolt. "Mycoach told me if I broke the national record for the 200, I could run a100." After Bolt ran the 200 in 19.75 seconds to break Donald Quarrie's36-year-old Jamaican record by .11, Mills acceded; in July of 2007, Bolt ranhis first professional 100 meters in a promising 10.03. He was smitten: In 2008Bolt would for the first time train for the glamour race.

YET THE sprinters'roles would not last. In early April, Powell injured his right shoulder liftingweights in Kingston and had surgery in Miami to reattach damaged tendons. Hemissed several weeks of training, didn't race until June and then tweaked hisright groin at a July meet in Rome.

While Powell wasrecovering from the shoulder injury, Bolt stunned all of track by running the100 in 9.76 seconds—second in history only to Powell's record—at a May 3 meetin Kingston. That was just a prelude. On May 31 Bolt humbled Gay and ran aworld-record 9.72 at the Reebok Grand Prix in New York City. The performanceinspired talk of athletic evolution; Bolt is 6'5", the tallest world-classsprinter in history. "It looked like his knees were going past myface," said the 5'11" Gay.

More than that,Bolt made it look easy. "In that race," says 1996 Olympic gold medalistDonovan Bailey, "it almost seemed like Usain had another turbo gear that hehadn't unleashed yet. Like it was a 120-meter race." Suddenly the sprintworld was chasing a new leader.

Gay seemed to begaining on Bolt when he broke the U.S. record with a 9.77 in the quarterfinalsof the Olympic trials on June 28 in Eugene, Ore., and a day later when he ran awind-aided 9.68 to win the final. But while running the turn in the trials'200-meter quarterfinals on July 5, Gay went down with a hamstring strain.

Now the sprinters'roles were redefined: The favorite was an uncertainty, the record holder hadlost his way, the upstart was a prodigy in the 100 meters as well.

BOLT'S FIRST lovewas cricket. "I was a good fast bowler," he says. He was raised with abrother and sister by his parents Jennifer and Wellesley Bolt in the parish ofTrelawny, on the north shore of Jamaica, historically significant because itwas the center of the slave trade on the island, aesthetically significant forits spectacular ocean views. Children there would go to the resort areas ofMontego Bay and Ocho Rios for fun.

By the time he was10, Bolt was running on his school team. In 2002, his senior year at WilliamKnibb High, he won the Jamaican high school titles in the 200 and 400 metersand that summer became the youngest junior world champion in history, winningthe 200 in Kingston a month shy of his 16th birthday. In '03 and '04 he setworld junior records for the 200.

Shortly after Boltturned pro in 2004, Mills became his coach and tried to push him to use hislong stride in the 400. "But he didn't have any interest in doing the workfor the 400," says Mills. The 100 was a different story. Once freed to workon aspects of the shorter race, Bolt spent last winter weight training harderthan ever and practicing starts. "He got bigger and stronger," saysMills. "He trained more diligently in practice. When he began running, thetimes were no surprise."

Like Powell, Boltlives and trains in Jamaica. He was offered track scholarships by several U.S.colleges but declined. "This is where I'm comfortable," he says. "Ican't live outside Jamaica." His house is a short drive from the trainingtrack next to the national stadium in Kingston, and he makes the commute in hisHonda Accord.

POWELL OWNS sixcars, his only indulgence. On a late spring afternoon he arrived at practice ina Nissan Skyline outfitted with a 500-horsepower engine; after his workout hegunned the car across the parking lot, tires screeching and smoking as theyleft skid marks behind. It was behavior typical of a cocky sprinter, butPowell's bravado faded when he stepped out of the car, grinning sheepishly.

He grew up theyoungest of six boys born to Cislin and William Powell, pastors in the parishof St. Catherine. Powell joined the MVP club at age 18 in 2001 and lived in aspartan dormitory at the University of Technology in Kingston. His family hasfaced tragedy: In '02 Powell's brother Michael was shot to death in New YorkCity; a year later his brother Vaun died of natural causes on a soccer field."It was so shocking," says Asafa. "I almost felt like, Who'snext?" His oldest brother, Donovan, a former world-class sprinter, toldhim, "Keep running."

In 2004 Powell rannine sub-10-second 100s but finished fifth in the Olympic final won by JustinGatlin, the U.S. runner now serving a four-year ban for a positive steroidtest. Powell was injured when Gatlin won the world 100-meter title in '05 andthen was beaten by .11 in Osaka last year by Gay. The cumulative effect is thatPowell is widely regarded as a fast man who cannot win big races.

His coach, formerdiscus thrower Stephen Francis, says, "We're trying to help Asafa copebetter with pressure. We've also tried to adapt his training to deal with thesecond day of races at major championships; major championships are not aboutthe fastest man, but about the best man after four races in two days. That's avery different thing. Asafa has always had trouble on the second day."

Eating dinner atRedbones Blues Café, an upscale restaurant in Kingston, on May 24, Powell said,"That Osaka race, I never watch it. It's like an accident. In some pastyears I haven't been good about training; this year I have. Now I just try tokeep running fast."

IN THE OFF-SEASONGay faced a major decision: Retain former Olympic sprinter Jon Drummond, whomGay calls his "consultant" (Gay began working with him in the spring of2007), or return to his longtime coach Lance Brauman, who had been releasedfrom prison in September after a one-year sentence for embezzlement, theft andmail fraud.

The dilemma testedGay's loyalty and his competitiveness, and in the end he spent the winter inOrlando with Brauman before moving to Arlington, Texas, on April 2 to trainpermanently with Drummond. "It's lonely in Texas," said Gay, after aspring workout. "But it's all business here, and this is what Ineed."

He was fit whenBolt trounced him in New York City, and was jolted by that defeat. "Thatrace made us work harder," says Drummond. The injury in Eugene was a biggerhurdle. "There's no such thing as a minor injury five weeks before theOlympic Games," says four-time Olympic medalist Ato Boldon.

Six days after theinjury Gay went ahead with plans to move his training base to Germany, and 11days after the strain he jogged lightly for the first time. "It feelsbetter, but I still have tightness in the hamstring," he said that night."That works on a sprinter's nerves."

Not only must Gayfind the courage to trust his body again, but he must also fully come to termswith his fall from gold medal favorite to gold medal hope, a metamorphosis thatcould be deflating or freeing. "I've been getting better with the mentalpart of it," he said. "I just have to stay confident that I'll be 100percent."

THE OLYMPIC 100 isBolt's race to lose. He has run faster than any man in history and has made itlook easy. Strategies to beat him are being debated. "We know how Bolt runswhen he gets in front," says Boldon. "But he's not a great starter; inthe world-record race, he had the start of his life. To beat him, somebody hasto get in front and put pressure on him."

Bailey agrees, toa point. "For Tyson or Asafa to beat Usain, they would need to have aflawless start and a flawless acceleration phase and still stay relaxed,"he says. "You know he's coming, and even if you get one meter ahead—eventwo meters ahead—he can make that up in three or four strides."

The pressure ofbeing the favorite to win the planet's biggest sprint event has shifted. Boltis not only expected to win the race, he's expected to win it spectacularly. Itis a new experience for him.

For that reasonhis handlers would not acknowledge in mid-July that Bolt would run both the 100and the 200 in Beijing. (At a July 13 meet in Athens he blew away the field inthe 200 with the year's fastest time: 19.67.) "We're not even there,"said Mills. "No decision yet." It's an absurd statement, of course, asilly dodge designed to deflect attention. But for Gay and Powell, it is a tinyslice of hope.

Follow SI's medaltracker throughout the Games at SI.com/olympics.

Said Bailey, "It seemed like Usain had anotherTURBO GEAR that he hadn't unleashed yet."
PHOTOPhotograph by Walter Iooss Jr.WEIGHT FACTOR Unlike Powell (in blue), who has come up short in big races, and Gay, who's getting over an injury, Bolt (left) has no prerace concerns.TWO PHOTOSPhotographs by Walter Iooss Jr.[See caption above]PHOTOGARY HERSHORN/REUTURS NEWWORLD ORDER Bolt's record 9.72 in New York City humbled Gay (left) andredefined the sprinting universe.ILLUSTRATION