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Questions Heading into the 2008 Olympic Men’s 100m Showdown

– Derek M. Hansen –

The 2008 Olympic men’s 100m appears to be one of the most highly anticipated Olympic races since Ben Johnson and Carl Lewis lined up back in September of 1988 in Seoul, Korea. But unlike the duel between Big Ben and King Carl, there are three contenders making a claim for the title of Olympic 100m Champion and Fastest Man in the World: Former world record holder Asafa Powell, current record holder and fellow Jamaican, Usain Bolt, and the 2007 World Champion and American record holder, Tyson Gay. However, many questions still remain as the showdown gets closer.

Can Asafa Powell put it together at the big show?

Despite being the World Record holder in the 100m from June 2005 to May 2008, Asafa Powell has fallen short at the big competitions including the 2004 Olympics (fifth place), 2005 World Championships (did not participate due to groin injury) and the 2007 World Championships (3rd place). Excuses have ranged from not knowing how to run the rounds properly to not having enough races leading up to the big event. And then, in 2008, he sustained a significant injury to his chest muscle during a bench press workout, leaving him without critical competitions and training between April and June.

Asafa has also had to deal with the ups and downs associated with the Jamaican 4x100m relay as of late. It appears that the Jamaican team coaches want him and other athletes to perform relay workouts with no regard for their 100m preparation. Asafa’s personal coach, Stephen Francis, was unimpressed by the Jamaican federation’s plans for the relay sessions and stated, “We don’t believe this is the ideal preparation. We believe the people who are doing this preparation have no clue about what they are doing. They want the athletes to go with a bunch of high school coaches.” Needless to say, it is just more stress for the former world recorder holder leading up to the biggest competition of his career. Although such an injury was thought to have put his 2008 medal chances in jeopardy, he has managed to piece his season back together again with a 9.82 second 100m in Monaco on July 29, 2008 with a 0.0 m/s wind reading.

Does Asafa Powell have the right combination of experience, desire and weight of his shoulders to win gold with Usain Bolt being touted as the favorite? Given Tyson Gay’s injury setback and Usain Bolt’s inexperience, one would have to say that Powell does have a good chance to rise to victory. Much will depend on how Powell handles the rounds leading up to the final, expending the least amount of energy, while building confidence over the field.

Will Usain Bolt be able to demonstrate his World Record form after 3 rounds of the 100m?

Usain Bolt has proven that he has the ability to do incredible things in single races as of late, compiling two sub-9.80 times in the same month (9.76 on May 3, 2008 and 9.72 on May 31, 2008). He has also run some impressive 200m times, running an easy 19.67 on July 13, 2008. Although he has also won a silver medal in the 200m at the 2007 World Championships in Osaka, it remains to be seen if Bolt can put together four consecutive rounds of 100m runs to win at a major championship event. Some would argue that Bolt’s speed endurance from his 200m training will take him through the 100m rounds, while others would make the point that running at 10 to 11 m/s in a 200m versus 11 to 12 m/s in the 100m can take it’s toll on the muscles and nervous system.

Bolt will have to use the rounds to “tune” himself up and feel out the competition. Coming in as the World Record holder and having soundly trounced Tyson Gay in that race, he has nothing to prove in the rounds and should have a good deal of confidence, despite his young age. He simply has to qualify safely and make it to the final in one piece. Assuming he has a sound start, he should be easily in the running for the gold medal. However, the pressure of a 100m Olympic final – with stiff competition – can play havoc on anyone’s mind.

Will Tyson Gay’s hamstring be strong enough to last the rounds and compete with the big boys?

After the US Olympic Trials 100m in Eugene, Oregon, Tyson Gay was looking like a serious contender for the 100m gold with his wind aided 9.68 second run and his 9.77 second legal time in the quarter-finals. However, his hamstring pull in the 200m qualifying heats on July 5th set him back significantly with only five weeks until the Olympics. Would he be ready to contend for the 100m final in Beijing? No one knew the extent of the injury. And, his rehabilitation and recovery has been kept relatively secretive, with his handlers issuing the requisite, “He will be ready for Beijing.”

There has been speculation that Gay’s rehabilitation was being carried out in Munich by Dr. Muller Wolfhardt who has been known for treating the injuries of many high profile soccer and track and field stars for the last ten years. Sources have commented that some of Wolfhardt’s work has been something short of a miracle, with hamstring tears being healed in less than a week. If Wolfhardt has managed to work his magic on Gay, perhaps the American sprinter will be ready to challenge for the gold.

Having seen the severity of Gay’s fall in the trials 200m, one does have to wonder if the psychological toll of the injury will have had a bigger impact on the sprinter’s state of mind than the physical scars. Testing out the hamstring in training runs is much different than firing all cylinders against Powell and Bolt. Even Ben Johnson, after his severe hamstring injury in May of 1988, had a number of races leading up to Seoul to test his legs against top contenders. One has to wonder if Gay will be able to ramp up his speed without worrying about the hamstring, particularly in the semi-finals and finals.

Are there any other contenders that we should keep an eye out for?

It is unlikely that someone else is well positioned to steal the gold from any of the big three. Walter Dix and Darvis Patton of the United States did run some fast wind-aided times in Eugene, but have not shown the ability to overtake a healthy Powell, Bolt or Gay. As for any other sprinters that could present a challenge, names like Richard Thompson and Marc Burns of Trinidad come to mind having run 9.93 seconds and 9.97 seconds in 2008, respectively. Unless something unforseen happens, like a disqualification or injury, it seems that Powell, Bolt and Gay are the heavy favourites. However, we might see another athlete dip in for a bronze, or even a silver, if one or two of the favorites feels the gold is slipping away through the final.

Will a Canadian sprinter be a factor?

No.

Will drug testing be a factor in determining the ultimate winner?

This is a difficult question. With many of the sub-9.80 club having tested positive (Ben Johnson and Justin Gatlin), admitted to doping (Tim Montgomery) or fallen under heavy suspicion (Maurice Greene), it is difficult to believe that more than just good coaching and genetics are at play with the current level of speedsters. It also depends on the IOC and WADA’s doping protocols and if, as they often boast, there testing procedures are more sensitive and updated. They obviously have not perfected their Human Growth Hormone test and athletes have figured this out (except the two Greek sprinters who fell off their motorcycle in 2004). As of late, there have been many doping positives that have come to our attention out of both Russia and Jamaica. But no major track athlete has tested positive at the Olympics since Ben Johnson (and it has been rumored for decades that his sample was sabotaged). One hopes that the cheaters will be caught and the truly “clean” athletes will prevail. But where does the cheating end and the cleanliness begin – at 7th place, 8th place or 20th place?

Chemistry aside, it will still be an exciting event to watch with all of the drama surrounding the major players. My bets are on Powell, with Bolt in a close second. I just cannot believe that Gay can come from what looked like a significant hamstring injury to beating two extremely competent sprinters, let alone secure the bronze medal, with no prior test race. The preliminary rounds will be very telling. I look forward to watching every race.

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