Epic Bolt-Gay tussle set to be cynosure

Rangy Jamaican eyes golden hat-trick, feisty American has other plans

Classic Face-Off: Defending champion Tyson Gay (left) and world record holder Usain Bolt are expected to set the track alight at the World Championships in Berlin.

The athletics world has lived in anticipation of that moment ever since, and another magnificent city steeped in the finest traditions of the sport will be the stage for the rangy Jamaican as he sets out to do what he so spectacularly achieved at the Olympic Games.

Three gold medals with three world records, an unprecedented feat at the quadrennial games, projected Bolt as the face of athletics. A year on, the aura he created hasn’t diminished one bit.

The sideshows, the dances, the celebrations cannot mask the fact that the 22-year-old is one awesome talent, and it is no surprise that the 12th World Championships, beginning at the Olympic stadium here on Saturday, hopes to ride on his class and charisma.

A trip through the German capital reveals the impact of the Jamaican, with billboards projecting his impending clash with American Tyson Gay as the must-watch event of the nine-day championships, way above that of the hot contest brewing in women’s high jump between home favourite Ariane Friedrich and defending champion Blanka Vlasic.

Indeed, the World Championships are not about Bolt and Gay alone. The season has highlighted quite a few potential firecrackers on the road to Berlin – Jeremy Wariner against LaShawn Merritt in men’s 400, Irving Saladino versus Dwight Phillips in long jump, Andreas Thorkildsen against Tero Pitkamaki in javelin, Allyson Felix against Veronica Campbell-Brown in women’s 200, Pamela Jelimo versus Janet Jepkosgei 800 and Tirunesh Dibaba versus Meseret Defar in 5000M. But there isn’t a speck of doubt about which one tops the list.

Bolt is unbeaten since Beijing and is gunning to become the first Jamaican to become the world 100M champion, even as his team attempts to tide over controversies on doping and put behind disciplinary issues related to team-mates Asafa Powell and women’s 100M Olympic champion Shelly-Ann Fraser.

His build-up, barring that April accident, has been excellent, despite bad weather hitting a clutch of his races. Purists might frown upon his technique and his start still pegs him back, leaving him with extra work to do, but none of it bothers Bolt.

“It’s good for me to know that even if I get a bad start, I can pick up at the end of the race. That’s my best part of the race, I get that from running the 200,” Bolt had said after running his season’s best of 9.79 at Paris, well outside his world record of 9.69.

Main rival
Gay, his main rival, is the leader this year with 9.77 seconds and has territory to protect here. With all talk centered around Bolt, it is easy to forget that the American is the double world champion and despite suffering a groin injury, he has clocked some fabulous times, including a 19.58 in the 200 this season.

After his Olympic disappointment, Gay indeed has lots at stake, but beating an in-form Bolt could well prove a touch beyond his capabilities, even if it provides all the sparks that these championships need on the blue track here.

The women’s 100M, headed by another Jamaican Kerron Stewart, too has riches aplenty but beyond the sprints, sparks are also waiting to fly in the men’s and women’s 400 with Wariner and Sanya Richards having similar goals. Merritt elbowed out Wariner in Beijing and the two-time world champion needs the title here badly to assert his status.

Richards paid the price for poor tactics at the Olympics against Britain’s Christine Ohuruogu. The American has been in great form this season while Ohuruogu has struggled with an injury, but she can’t be counted out easily.

Injuries do cast a cloud over two other contests – women’s 800 and 5000M. Jelimo, who had an outstanding break-out season last year, and Jepkosgei, the defending champion, are still on the road to peak form while the Dibaba-Defar duel also has a fitness cloud over it. In contrast, on the men’s side, long-distance king Kenenisa Bekele looks primed to enhance his status by winning his fourth title in the 10,000 and joining his great compatriot Haile Gebrselassie.

Bekele has never lost a 10,000M race and is on course for the Golden League jackpot in 5000-3000M races this season but despite all that, the talk of the town – indeed of the athletics world – is mainly one man. His name, as he himself says, is Bolt, Lightning Bolt.

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