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Running for No. 1

June 18, 2012
June 18, 2012

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June 18, 2012

SI.com
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  • THE 1956 MELBOURNE OLYMPICS WERE PLUNGED INTO COLD WAR INTRIGUE AS DOZENS OF HUNGARIAN ATHLETES, UNWILLING TO RETURN HOME AFTER SOVIET TANKS CRUSHED A POPULAR UPRISING AGAINST COMMUNIST RULE, DEFECTED TO FREEDOM—WITH HELP FROM A YOUNG SPORTS MAGAZINE

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Running for No. 1

Jamaican sprinter Yohan Blake's strong showing at the Adidas Grand Prix sets up an intriguing battle with his more famous countryman—at the Olympic trials and in London

Perhaps the ability to run with lightning speed requires a balance, as if the sprinter is a teeter-totter, and only really slow or really fast can be up at one time.

This is an article from the June 18, 2012 issue

So last Friday, the day before the Adidas Grand Prix on Randall's Island in New York City, sprinter Yohan Blake, wearing red sandals and calf-high rainbow socks, was easily the slowest pedestrian sauntering along Park Avenue. "Usain [Bolt] showed that you can relax and do funny stuff before the race and it pays off," Blake said. "Not thinking about pressure has been working out for me."

It worked out for him on Saturday. Despite a poor start—which appears to be more theme than aberration for Blake—the 22-year-old Jamaican ran down the field to win in 9.90 seconds. Blake's performance sets up a showdown with Bolt, his taller, flashier, more famous training partner (who blazed a 9.79 in Oslo last week), at Jamaica's Olympic trials later this month. As Blake put it, in Jamaican jargon, "The trials are going to be a cracker."

While Bolt is bigger than the sport, Blake happens to be the defending world champ in the 100 meters. At the world championships last year in Daegu, South Korea, Bolt false-started and was disqualified. A replay showed that Bolt appeared to jump after Blake twitched slightly in the lane to his right. Some track fans took it as a sign that Bolt is, well, jumpy about the challenge posed by his young training mate. Perhaps he should be, particularly in the 200.

Last September, Blake ran 19.26, second in history only to Bolt's 19.19. But Blake had an atrocious 0.269 second reaction time to the gun in that race, more than double Bolt's 0.133. With even a decent reaction, Blake would own the world record heading into London. Not to mention that "both [Usain] and I know that I train harder," says Blake, who grew up with a father who worked in a bar and a mother who worked in other people's homes. Blake sold bottles for money as a child and, like Bolt, aspired to be a cricketer before a primary school principal saw him run at Jamaica's school sports day and pushed him toward the track. "I know poverty," Blake says, "and it keeps me motivated. I want to be remembered as the greatest athlete ever to run." Whenever Bolt stays at practice as long as Blake, their coach jokingly asks, "'Big man, what you doing here?'" Blake says. And so it is that Bolt's training partner represents the greatest barrier between him and another display of invincibility like the one he had in China four years ago.

While Blake will continue to push his rival all the way to London, Saturday's 800-meter race left spectators asking if any runner in the world will be able to stay in the camera shot with Kenyan world-record holder David Rudisha. The 6'3" Masai warrior hasn't lost an 800 since 2009, and he elicited gasps from the crowd with his world-leading 1:41.74, winning by nearly 30 meters. Only two men (Wilson Kipketer and Sebastian Coe) have run faster. Quite simply, no one is supposed to run that fast this early in the season. Sudanese runner Abubaker Kaki, Rudisha's top challenger in recent years, was the only athlete who bothered to give serious chase, but he withered under the pace and stepped off the track a little more than halfway through. Said Rudisha afterward, "I'm almost in my best shape. In the coming months it will be better." The rest of the world will be busy racing for silver.

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"WHILE BOLT IS BIGGER THAN THE SPORT, BLAKE IS THE DEFENDING WORLD CHAMP IN THE 100 METERS."
PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERNO SWEAT Bolt (far left) has helped Blake learn to relax; the new approach has led to Bolt-like times on the track.PHOTOMYUNGGU HAN/ABACAUSA.COM[See caption above]