World’s Fastest Men on Collision Course
They've been doing their competing from afar this season. Tyson Gay posts an impressive time in the 100 or 200 meters in New York or Rome. Usain Bolt answers with a similar time in Paris or Lausanne, Switzerland.
Assuming the field holds to form and body parts hold up, they should go head-to-head for the first time in more than a year at the world track and field championships, which start Saturday in Berlin and run through Aug. 23. The 100 begins with two rounds Saturday and the semifinals and final Sunday.
"I think you'll see some of the best sprinting ever," says Gay, who considers Jamaica's Asafa Powell, the former world recordholder in the 100, another contender. "You've got three guys in the finals capable of running 9.7 or faster. That's why it could be the most exciting race ever."
Wearing the green, black and gold of Jamaica in the stadium where Jesse Owens won four golds in 1936 will be Bolt, the Beijing Olympic champion and the world recordholder in the 100 and 200. In the red, white and blue U.S. bodysuit will be Gay, the 2007 world champion in the 100 and 200 and the holder of the year's fastest times in both.
Penn Relays director and track historian Dave Johnson considers the matchup the most anticipated 100 showdown since Carl Lewis of the U.S. and Canada's Ben Johnson vied for the title of world's fastest man in the 1988 Olympics.
"(Bolt's) duel with Tyson Gay is certain to rewrite the history books of our sport," Lamine Diack, head of the international track federation, told a German news agency this week.
Said Doug Logan, CEO of USA Track & Field, "I believe it has the makings of one for the ages."
Gay's comeback season
The Bolt-Gay showdown never materialized in Beijing last year after Gay pulled a left hamstring muscle in the U.S. Olympic trials the month before the Games. His training and acceleration compromised, he was a non-factor, faltering in the 100 semifinals. The last time the two met was May 2008 in New York, where Bolt shocked the track world with the first of his two 100 world records, 9.72 to Gay's 9.85.
In Beijing, Bolt made a mockery of the sprints despite being a neophyte in the 100 after years as a 200 specialist. He set a world record of 9.69 in the 100 and won by 0.20 despite thumping his chest, looking around and coasting the final 20 meters. In the 200 he broke Michael Johnson's supposedly untouchable mark of 19.32 from 1996 with a 19.30, winning by 0.66 seconds.
Just when Bolt, 22, appeared to make every other sprinter in the world irrelevant, Gay, 27, has produced a comeback season.
Gay rates himself "in the best shape of my life," despite a nagging groin injury that could require postseason surgery.
"(Gay) definitely has a shot," says Ato Boldon, the 1997 world 200 champion and a television analyst, working the Berlin meet for NBC. "I just don't see him being able to separate from Usain the early part of the race to put Usain under a whole lot of pressure."
Not that Bolt is trembling in his Pumas.
"On my best day, I don't think he's going to beat me," Bolt said before the London meet in late July.
"I would say I'll always be faster than Tyson Gay. I'm trying to stay that way, but you never know. I think he knows he needs to do a lot, because I've shown I'm a very good athlete."
Maurice Greene, an Olympic and three-time world 100 champion, agrees, though he will be pulling for fellow American Gay: "I just hope it's a competitive race. Bolt is on another planet now with the things he's doing. Gay needs Bolt to have the worst race he can run."
Fast start is key
For much of the European season, Gay has been headquartered in Munich, Germany, receiving therapy on a left groin injury that has hampered his training. He insists he will be fine in Berlin.
"I feel good running the fastest times in the world this year, but I truly believe I can run a lot faster," he says.
He's been competing on what he calls a combination of adrenaline and faith.
"When I say adrenaline, I mean I'm excited to run," he says. "Once the gun is shot, I don't feel any pain. I have faith I'm going to be healthy and still can win (despite) being hurt."
Gay has managed groin problems for years, but nothing this serious.
Gay's problem has him wondering what he'd be running if he were healthy and had uninterrupted training.
There are similar thoughts about Bolt, who delayed the start of his season after he suffered cut feet when he totaled his BMW in April and seems always to be racing in rainy and windy conditions.
"Those conditions show he's capable of running even faster," Gay says.
Gay, like a lot of other observers, considers Bolt a "beast" and "monster."
Bolt is 6-5, and his stride reaches 9 feet when he's in full flight. He typically takes 41 1/2 strides in the 100, while other runners, including the 5-11 Gay, are in the mid-40s.
"He's very unique, amazing," Gay says. "He has phenomenal turnover."
The last time Bolt lost a race came 13 months ago, when he got left in the blocks and Powell edged him 9.88 to 9.89 in Stockholm. The start, not a Gay strong point, will be crucial in Berlin.
Gay, coached by Lance Brauman and Jon Drummond, has used Drummond, a retired sprinter known for great starts, to fine-tune the early part of his race. "Each year he has been improving every aspect of the 100," Drummond says. "I feel very comfortable and confident in his start."
Drummond's emphasis has been to get Bolt to react quicker to the gun and also get into proper running alignment out of the blocks. Like Gay, Bolt has improved his start where his frame can be a liability as he transitions to the upright position in the first 20 meters. Who gets out first will hold an advantage.
"You don't find too many people who can run down another person who runs 9.7 and 19.5," Gay says. "It just doesn't happen. His top end (speed) is extremely, extremely good. It's going to be tough to run him down if I'm behind (at) 50 meters.
"My first 50 and last 20 will be very important."
Boldon thinks Gay's best strategy to beat Bolt would be to skip the 100 and contest only the 200.
"Bolt himself said he's not in the kind of shape he was in Beijing," Boldon says. "Assuming both start the 200 final, I think Tyson would have more relative to Usain in terms of what's left in the tank."
Gay has no intentions of skipping the 100. A world record would not be a surprise provided conditions are favorable.
While observing Bolt in the Olympics last year, Gay left China with a changed perspective on the 100: "It went from 9.7 doesn't mean a lot anymore. If I'm not running 9.6 or faster, hang it up."
The ease with which Bolt dispatched the rest of the world last year might prompt many sprinters to consider retirement.
"What impresses me most is how easily he does things," Greene says.
Gay grouped Bolt with superstar athletes such as Kobe Bryant and Randy Moss "as someone who's way better than everybody else."
When Gay was asked how you beat someone like that, he laughed: "Well, I don't really believe he's way better than me. "