“People who say there is no pressure, that’s a lie,”
The nickname and the shirt spoke of sprinting’s familiar bravado. A certain audacity is required to aspire to be the world’s fastest man. But there was no preening confidence about Yohan Blake, no bold assertion, no outrageous gesture.
He has run the year’s fastest time at 100 meters (9.75 seconds) and last year posted track and field history’s second-fastest mark at 200 meters (19.26 seconds). At the recent Jamaican Olympic trials, Blake defeated Bolt in both events. In the 200, Blake did what few thought possible. He ran down Bolt from behind.
The Olympics’ most anticipated event, the men’s 100 meters, will come Sunday. Blake did not say that he was the one to beat, only that he was among the competitors. If he did not stray much beyond cliché, that is because he seems to be a man of natural reserve and methodical determination.
It was Bolt who nicknamed him the Beast, because Blake trains with ruthless purpose. When others are sleeping, Blake says, he is toiling. Perhaps his resolve comes from a poor childhood in Jamaica. Blake has said he sold empty beer bottles to afford school and carried water on his head for distances because none was available at home.
“When my coach gives me a program, I damage it,” Blake said.
At the 2008 Beijing Games, Bolt won three gold medals and set three world records (including the 4×100 relay) with stunning speed and engaging charisma. He performed his archer’s pantomime, danced in celebration, rescued a sport teetering on irrelevance. At the 2009 world track and field championships in Berlin, Bolt astonished again, lowering his record in the 100 to 9.58 seconds and the 200 to 19.19.
But kinks in his back and his technique have since made Bolt appear vulnerable. He claims to have regained his health and his form, saying the London Games will only enhance his legend. It is true that Bolt, 25, exults in these moments, while Blake, 22, has never participated on a stage as grand as the Olympics. He watched at home on television while Bolt dominated in Beijing.
Despite his troubled season, Bolt has still run three of the year’s five fastest times. And no one in the Olympic field has come within 11 hundredths of a second of Bolt’s best time. That might as well be an hour. What no one yet knows is whether Bolt can approach his peak here, where the weather and his sprinting mechanics could be mercurial.
“I don’t really say he’s vulnerable,” Tyson Gay of the United States, who has run 9.69, equaling the sport’s second-fastest time, said of Bolt. “He’s the only guy that’s been where we haven’t been. He’s the Olympic champion. He knows what it takes.”
The question is, does Blake? Can he avoid destabilizing anxiety? Top sprinters will run three rounds of the 100 instead of the usual four. That is one less chance to make a mistake, also one less to find a winning rhythm.
“People who say there is no pressure, that’s a lie,” said Kelly-Ann Baptiste of Trinidad and Tobago, who won a bronze medal in the women’s 100 at the 2011 world championships.
There has been a tweak, too, to the zero tolerance rule of the false start. At the 2011 world championships, Blake flinched slightly in an adjacent lane in the 100 and Bolt shot out of the blocks. Then Bolt yanked off his shirt, stunned at being disqualified. In Bolt’s absence, Blake won the race.
At the London Games, a sprinter will remain eligible with slight twitching. Disqualification will come only if hands leave the ground and feet exit the blocks. Will this allow someone to catch a flyer? Will a star fall victim to impulsive anticipation?
Blake said he was not concerned about Bolt, only about himself. He relaxes away from the track by watching cricket, his favorite sport. “Don’t panic,” has become a kind of mantra. “Get to the line and focus on what I did in training.”
He and Bolt will remain friends before and after the race. But in those decisive seconds, when success and failure will be measured by the indifferent, unassailable calculation of a clock, Blake said, “It is going to be all business, each man for himself.”
At least one former Olympic champion, Maurice Greene, believes the shock will come if Blake loses, not if he wins. Both are sponsored by Adidas, so Greene’s words must be measured in both commercial and analytical terms. But his point is that Blake is more efficient from zero to 60 meters and thus more likely to win a gold medal.
A sprinter does not simply pop up out of the blocks and accelerate for 100 meters. The race begins with a ballistic explosion and the so-called drive phase that focuses more on power than speed and can extend to 30 or 35 meters.
Next comes the transition to top speed as sprinters rise fully upright and accelerate to peak swiftness at about 60 meters, holding it to about 75 meters. Then they try to decelerate as little as possible. At the tape, the winner is not so much running the fastest as slowing down the slowest.
According to Greene, who won the 100 at the 2000 Sydney Games in Australia, Bolt, who is 6-foot-5, has been losing power early in races by rising at too sharp an angle. “When you push a refrigerator, do you want to push it standing up or get down low where you can really push?” Greene said. “He’s not in that good pushing position. So he rushes everything else.”
Blake, who is 5-11, said Sunday’s final would meet expectations. But there was no sense trying to intimidate anyone with gamesmanship at the start.
“I don’t need to scare the other athletes,” Blake said. “When I’m running, I will scare them.” – Nytimes