Bolt v Blake in trials
Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake (File)
Kingston - Over the last several months, Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake have spent dozens of hours practicing at the same time on the same track under the watchful eye of the same coach.
When it comes to racing - really racing - the Jamaican sprinters have been criss-crossing the globe avoiding each other.
The head-to-head clash can't be put off any longer.
Bolt, the world-record holder, and Blake, the reigning world champion, will square off this week at the meet called, simply, the Jamaican National Senior Championships - or, what most other countries would call the Olympic trials.
Heats in the 100m start on Thursday, with the final for that event set for Friday night at National Stadium in Kingston. The 200m starts on Saturday and wraps up on Sunday.
Bolt will be racing for the first time since being involved in what his publicist said was a "minor" car accident, while returning home from a party in the wee hours of June 10.
Both Bolt and Blake are expected to easily earn spots on the Jamaican Olympic team - widely regarded as the fastest collection of track talent in the world. That would presumably set them up for more significant showdowns in London, where the 100m final is on August 5 and the 200m on August 9.
But this will be the first meeting since their 100m "race" last year at the world championships, won by Blake after Bolt was disqualified for a false start, and it could set the tone for the upcoming month.
Some believe the tone has already been set.
"This rivalry being touted between Blake and Bolt, it's only being positioned as such because it's the closest thing we have," said Michael Johnson, whose 12-year-old record of 19.32 seconds in the 200 was toppled by Bolt at the Beijing Olympics. "At the end of the day, you look at the top five, six, seven times Bolt has run in his life and it's faster than anything Blake has run. On any given day, no one would ever bet against Bolt."
In fact, British sports books list Bolt as a 2-5 favourite to win the 100m at the Olympics, with Blake as the second choice at 7-2.
As for the numbers Johnson points out - well, he has a point.
Blake's personal best in the 100m is 9.82 seconds, run two times, a few days apart in Europe last September.
Bolt, meanwhile, has set the world record three times: 9.58 seconds at the 2009 worlds in Berlin; 9.69 at the Beijing Olympics; 9.72 about 10 weeks before that in New York. He also has a handful of other 9.7s, one of which was the 9.76 he ran in Kingston in May 2008 - a run that announced him as the next big threat in the 100, but a mark that was also doubted by many outside observers, who wondered if he was benefiting from a friendly timekeeper on his home turf.
He wasn't, and over the past four years, he has rewritten the record books, with his mission for 2012 to establish himself as an undisputed legend of the sport, while possibly running in the 9.4s.
"If I were to be guided by their best performances, I would say based on Bolt's big performances, he has done better and faster times than Yohan," said the man who coaches both sprinters, Glen Mills. "But Yohan is at the beginning of his career and Usain is probably somewhere in the middle of his. One is advanced and one is starting out. They're two exceptional young athletes, capable of superlative performances on any given day."
In fact, the 22-year-old Blake's most superlative performance has come not in the 100 but in the 200-meter race, where he surprised a lot of people - Mills, Bolt, even himself - by running a 19.26 last September. It was the second-fastest time ever run, behind only Bolt's 19.19 at 2009 world championships.
Blake made no bones about the fact that he learns from Bolt, 25, while watching him run the curve in the 200 in practice.
Bolt, meanwhile, likes to call the 200 his real job and the 100 something he does more for fun.
"I think the tutoring just stopped," Bolt said after watching Blake record that 19.26.
Bolt, of course, wasn't on the same track with Blake when he received that wake-up call. He hasn't lost - or raced against Blake - since he jumped early from the blocks in the 100 last August at worlds.
While Blake has been running mostly in North America over the spring and summer, Bolt has gone for the more high-profile starts in Diamond League meets in Europe - scheduling that has miffed track junkies, who are deprived of the matchup they really want to see.
Mills insists nobody should read too much into it.
"Basically, Usain is an experienced campaigner in Europe," Mills said. "He has been doing it for the past six years or so. Yohan started a year ago and he had some problems in his competitions leading up to trials."
And so, Mills said, Blake has been held to a less-rigorous travel regimen leading into the most important part of the track calendar.
As is the case in the United States, where sprinters Justin Gatlin and Tyson Gay will be keenly interested in the action in Kingston, Jamaica holds fairly firm to the tenet that the top three in each event make the Olympics, no excuses, and nobody backs in based on their pedigree. (There is a little wiggle room in the Jamaican rulebook, but mainly in case of injuries.)
At the Olympic qualifier in 2008, Jamaica's most famous woman sprinter and the country's Olympic flagbearer, Veronica Campbell-Brown, didn't finish in the top three in the 100m - considered a shocker at the time, even though it didn't undermine the country's dominance one bit.
Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, Sherone Simpson and Kerron Stewart led a Jamaican sweep of the 100 medals in Beijing. Those three, along with Campbell-Brown, should be, once again, competing for spots on a women's team that might be even deeper than the men's.
Almost lost in this conversation: Asafa Powell, the man who held the world record in the 100 before Bolt.
At 29, Powell is still running at an elite level, still trying to win a championship at a major meet, still trying to overcome his reputation as someone who does not come through when the stakes are the highest. He has been more or less living in the 9.7s and 9.8s since about 2004. His best this season was a 9.85 in Oslo earlier this month.
He lost that race to Bolt by .06 seconds but took it as a positive sign.
"I knew if I ran like I was supposed to, that it was going to be close," Powell said after that race. "I was either going to win or it was going to be close. I am satisfied. I still have a long way to go. You never know. You might see another result at the Olympics."