Looking for a good, clean flight
BEIJING -- He had a gold signet ring on his right pinkie, a silver ring on the middle finger of his left hand and a gold watch that looked like a couple ingots from Fort Knox went into it on his wrist.
He sat on a stage next to a European pop singing icon, Paolo Nutini, during a news conference last week. His shoe company sponsor, Puma, presented him with a pair of gilt-colored spikes to wear in the Olympics.
Barely three months ago, no one would have imagined Usain Bolt glittering like this.
In less time than it takes you to read this sentence, Usain Bolt went from a young man whom only track fans knew to the sprinter whom the whole world will focus on when the Olympic track and field competition begins Friday morning with the first of four rounds in the 100 meters.
Call it the flash of the dash.
Never in one Olympics have three men been able to flash the credentials of Bolt, fellow Jamaican Asafa Powell and U.S. champion Tyson Gay.
They are the three fastest men in the sport’s history -- the world-record holder (Bolt, 9.72 seconds), former world-record holder (Powell, 9.74) and U.S.-record holder (Gay, 9.77), who also is the reigning world champion.
Not since 1988, when Carl Lewis met Ben Johnson, has there been an Olympic 100 as anticipated as this.
A sport battered by doping scandals can only hope the outcome is different from 1988, when Canada’s Johnson won in a world record of 9.79, only to have both the record and gold medal stripped after a positive test for a banned steroid.
Three of the past five 100-meter champions have tested positive for steroids, although Johnson was the only one to whom it happened during the Olympics. Both Linford Christie of Britain (1992) and Justin Gatlin of the U.S. (2004) were caught later.
Suspicions of doping had not become one of the many plot lines leading up to this Olympic 100 until Powell complained Tuesday that he and his Jamaican teammates had undergone several blood tests since arriving in China.
The lack of an independent anti-doping agency in Jamaica has caused concerns that the island’s latest generation of sprint stars has not been tested frequently enough at home.
“They have tested me four times and took a lot of blood,” Powell said. “I’m saying they are taking so much blood I might be very weak for the [Saturday] finals of the 100 meters.”
IAAF general secretary Pierre Weiss was sympathetic to Powell’s complaint.
“Four times is too much,” he said.
Such is the state of track and field in the wake of the BALCO doping scandal that it is impossible simply to revel in the sudden emergence of the 21-year-old Bolt as the world’s fastest man.
When he clocked 9.72 during a May 31 race in New York, beating not only Gay but Powell’s world record, it added a new dimension to the Olympic 100.
“Asafa told me I took a lot of pressure off him,” Bolt said.
Powell no longer was Jamaica’s only hope to reverse the result of the 2007 worlds. He was heavily favored in that meet but, by his own admission, panicked as Gay closed in on him at 70 meters.
Questions about that performance have dogged Powell since. But the pressure has shifted to Bolt, with questions about how he will handle it.
“I’m not nervous,” said Bolt, a 200-meter specialist until this season. “I feel ready for the crowd, the stadium and the atmosphere. I am going there to win the gold medal and have been working for this goal so long, now it is all I think about. I won’t be fazed when I get there.”
Gay has questions of a different sort, about his ability to recover from a hamstring strain that has kept him from racing since pulling up July 5 in the quarterfinals of the 200 at the U.S. Olympic trials.
There hasn’t been a recent Olympic 100 champion with less background at the distance than Bolt.
“It’s not like he came out of nowhere,” said Jon Drummond, who coaches Gay. “You look back, and he did phenomenal things at 14, 15, 16, 17 years old.”
Bolt is unusual for another reason: He is 6 feet 5, a height most would consider a detriment in an event where the start is so critical. It usually takes a taller man more time to get moving out of the blocks.
Gay insists his leg is fine. Powell says if he gets ahead of Gay and Bolt, they won’t catch him. Bolt says he is ready for a stage a lot bigger than the one he commanded at a news conference here.
Bling it on.
Philip Hersh covers Olympic sports for The Times and the Chicago Tribune.