LONDON — The fastest men on the planet will line up side by side Sunday, and in theory, any one of them could win gold in one of the most anticipated 100-meter races the Olympics has ever seen.
In actuality, all eyes will gravitate toward Jamaican sensation Usain Bolt, a magnet for attention, already an international superstar. Whatever Bolt does — win or lose, primp or preen — he’ll make it hard for anyone to look away. Even those trying to swipe his Olympic crown have to fight the urge to steal a glance.
“You’re gonna be in awe sometimes,” said Justin Gatlin, the year’s fastest sprinter not born in Jamaica. “I think a lot of runners almost have that audience mentality, to see what he’s going to do, even while you’re running. You’ve got to block that out.”
When it comes to the track and field world, Gatlin says Bolt is “the equivalent of a guy walking on the moon for the first time,” and Sunday at Olympic Stadium, the 25-year old Jamaican will try to add to his legend. Carl Lewis, in 1984 and ’88, is the only runner who has managed to win the prized 100-meter race in consecutive Olympics. After a false start in last year’s world championships and finishing second in his own country’s Olympic trials, a Bolt win here is certainly no sure thing.
“It definitely feels good,” Bolt said following his first-round race Saturday.
There were no surprises in the men’s 100-meter first-round heats, but the finishing times seemed to confirm one thing: Sunday’s final should be one of the fastest races ever.
In the seven first-round heats, Americans Ryan Bailey (9.88 seconds) and Gatlin (9.97) both broke the 10-second barrier and eight sprinters posted faster times than Bolt’s 10.09. American Tyson Gay, the former world champion, won his heat in 10.08 seconds. Bailey posted the day’s fastest time, as all three American sprinters advanced to Sunday’s semifinals, which will be followed two hours later by the gold-medal race.
The speedy Jamaicans also cruised through their first races. Bolt’s time was actually the slowest of the three. Yohan Blake, the defending world champion and perhaps the favorite to unseat his fellow countryman, won his heat (10 seconds), as did Asafa Powell (10.04).
But all eyes at Olympic Stadium on Saturday were focused on the world record holder who received an ovation that topped that of any British athlete. When the starter’s pistol fired, Bolt showed no signs of the hamstring injury that prompted him to withdraw from a Diamond League race last month.
“He looked good,” said Gatlin, who won gold at the 2004 Games. “He looked like Bolt. . . . He was doing the same thing he’s been doing.”
Bolt was a bit slow out of the blocks — of the 54 first-round finishers, his reaction time was faster than just five others — but was still able to cruise for the final 20 meters or so.
“I can’t complain. I’ve been doing a lot of work on that,” Bolt said of his start. “But we have come to the conclusion we shouldn’t worry about the start. We should just focus on the rest of the race, which we always do. So I am working the last 50 meters. That is my strong point. That is what I am focusing on.”
Worth remembering: In Beijing four years ago, Bolt ran a 10.2 in his first race, which he then lowered to 9.92 and 9.85 in subsequent rounds, winning all three heats. He won gold with a record-setting time of 9.69 seconds. (Bolt’s 9.58 finish in 2009 is the current record.)
“It’s gonna take a dominating race,” Gatlin said of Sunday’s final. “You have to dominate from the beginning.”
Bailey, 23, placed third at the U.S. trials in Eugene, Ore., with a 9.93. His impressive time Saturday matched his personal best.
While most runners conserve their energy in the first-round races — Gay said Saturday, “I did about 75 percent” — Bailey’s time was so good that it would’ve earned a medal at any Olympics before 2004. It would’ve been good enough for gold at any Games before 1996.
“There’s no pressure on me whatsoever,” he said. “If I go out there and fail, nobody was expecting me to medal anyways. I figure if I go out there and medal, steal a medal from somebody, it’s good for me.”