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Explosive start in store for track and field

9:58 AM, Aug 3, 2012   |    comments
Yohan Blake watches Usain Bolt dance as they celebrate victory and a new world record in the men's 4x100 metres relay final during day nine of 13th IAAF World Athletics Championships. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
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LONDON -- In the previous 27 Olympic men's 100-meter races, U.S. sprinters have won 16 gold medals, the names of the winners still familiar -- Jesse Owens, Bob Hayes, Carl Lewis and, more recently, Maurice Greene and Justin Gatlin.

That era of U.S. domination in the sprints ended with a thud -- or, more like it, a lightning bolt -- in 2008 in Beijing, where Jamaican sensation Usain Bolt took center stage and ran like a god and posed and danced like a teenager in winning the 100 and 200 in world-record times.

Bolt, 25 now, is back in the Olympics and the central attraction of a track meet that starts Friday and should gear up to full speed with the men's 100 heats Saturday and the semifinals and final Sunday night.

Bolt has come to London a more vulnerable sprinter, having lost to his younger countryman, Yohan Blake, 22, in both the 100 and 200 in the Jamaican Olympic trials.

But he still comes in as the fastest man in the world, his world records in the 2009 world championships - 9.58 in the 100, 19.19 in the 200 - ever in the minds of his top Olympic competitors: Blake and fellow Jamaican Asafa Powell, a former world recordholder, and U.S. challengers Tyson Gay, the second-fastest 100-meter runner in history, and 2004 Olympic champ Gatlin, who is back after serving a four-year doping suspension. Gatlin trains in metro Atlanta.

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Some experts, including 2000 champ Greene, are picking Blake in the 100.

But Gay, who at 9.69 has run faster than anyone except Bolt, makes an important point: "I don't really say (Bolt) is vulnerable. He's the only guy that's been where we haven't been. And he's the Olympic champion. He knows what it takes."

And Bolt says he knows what he wants here. He didn't come to London just to show he can still run fast, he says.

His goal at these Games?

"To be a legend," he says. "Everybody knows that."

The men's 100 is but one of a series of individual races and sprint relays that will pit Americans against Jamaicans in men's and women's events.

Sprinters tend to focus on themselves and their individual races, but the Americans and Jamaicans keep getting asked about the supposed running rivalry between their nations, and to some extent they feel it.

"In 2008, the U.S. had a target on its back, and we took them down," says veteran Jamaican sprinter Michael Frater, who will run the 4x100m relay. "Now we have a target on our back."

In Beijing, Bolt dominated the men's sprints and Jamaican women won the 100 and 200 and actually won five of the six medals in those two events, the only exception being U.S. star Allyson Felix's silver in the 200.

The women's sprints in London could again come down to Jamaica-USA showdowns, as U.S. reigning world champion Carmelita Jeter in the 100 and Felix again in the 200 likely will face off with Jamaicans in the finals. The women's 100 final is Saturday night. The women's 200 final is Wednesday.

National rivalries aside, the men's 100 is intriguing perhaps more for the individual rivalry. Jamaica vs. Jamaica actually looks like the story in the 100, with Blake appearing to be the fastest, fittest challenger to Bolt.

"I think Blake has a better technical race than everybody out there, so I pick him to win," says 2000 champ Greene, who, it should be pointed out, is paid, like Blake, by Adidas.

Blake, 5-11, powerfully built and nicknamed - by Bolt, his training partner - "The Beast" because of his fondness for brutal training sessions, has the fastest time this year, 9.75 seconds when he beat Bolt in the Jamaican trials in late June.

Blake also beat Bolt in the 200 meters in the trials, and he won the 100 meters in the world championships last year when Bolt was disqualified for a false start.

Blake wore a T-shirt to a news conference this week that read "Eat My Dust." But his conversations with the news media are sprinkled liberally with bland clichés about staying focused and doing his best. Posing and preening and dancing remain Bolt's style, not his.

Nor does he attempt to intimidate before the start.

"I don't need to scare the other runners," he says. "When I run, I scare them."

Whether Bolt, whose 6-5 frame gives him an incomparable stride length, is scared is, of course, difficult to say. Though he has looked shaky this year on his starts, he has put up fast times - a 9.76 in May, a 9.79 in early June.

Before the opening ceremony, Bolt said he had figured out the back and hamstring issues that bothered him this year and said he and his coach, Glen Mills, talked after the Jamaican trials about not stressing so much about his sluggish starts.

"It's all about execution and getting it right at the end of the race," Bolt says.

For Gay, who raced with a hamstring injury in the 2008 Olympics and failed to reach the final, the question again is about health and fitness.

He had hip surgery last year and didn't resume racing until June.

He ran fast in the U.S. trials - 9.86 to Gatlin's winning 9.80 - but he has been limping after races and workouts.

He's 29, and he wants an Olympic medal so bad.

"It's a missing piece in my heart," he says.

(David Leon Moore, USA TODAY)

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