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Track begins, and so does the anticipation for Usain Bolt vs. the field

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  August 3, 2012 03:24 PM

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Jamaica's Usain Bolt, center, will be the man to watch as the track field heats up in London. (Gary Hershorn / REUTERS)

LONDON -- Despite the Twitter gripes and badminton scandals and any other secondary silliness, the reality is that these Summer Games have lived up their expectations so far.

And many who had golden aspirations -- or had enormous expectations placed upon them -- have delivered. Michael Phelps his run his medal count to 21, and his 17 gold medals are just one behind the all-time record for total medals won by anyone not named Michael Phelps, who may possibly be revealed to have dolphins in his family tree any day now.

Gymnast Gabby Douglas became America's sweetheart with her scintillating gold-medal performance in the women's individual all-around, and while Needham's Aly Raisman just missed bronze herself, her performance here, whether qualifying for the all-around or anchoring the team gold, proved once and for all she's not an athlete to be underestimated.

Great stories. Great, great stories. And did we mention the ridiculous badminton scandal?

But now? Now, it might get even more compelling, so much so that NBC won't be required to edit any plot twists.

Track and field -- or "athletics,'' as the home team here elegantly refers to them -- began Friday, with medal events in the men's shot put and the women's 10,000 meters, as well as qualifying in the women's 100. There are 47 total events under the "athletics'' designation, but one is anticipated more than than all of the others, and it's the one that will be over the fastest.

No offense to Phelps and Ryan Lochte, but the marquee event of these Games is the men's 100 meters, featuring Beijing breakout star and world-record holder (9.58 seconds) Usain Bolt, his nemesis and countryman Yohan Blake, and another fellow Jamaican, veteran Asafa Powell. That's staggering amount of talent and enough genuine story lines to make a fascinating race between just three of them. But add Americans Tyson Gay and would-be redemption story Justin Gatlin to the field, and there is potential for a classic outcome no matter who gets to the tape first.

Bolt is as charismatic an athlete as there is here, and his confidence cannot be dented. So it may come as a surprise to him that he's not invincible. Blake, his training partner, beat him in both the 100 and 200 in the Jamaican Olympic trials, and Bolt has battled back and hamstring issues this year. With Gay, who owns a best of 9.69 in the 100 and desperately wants to shed his "second-fastest man alive" label, and Gatlin, returning at age 30 from a doping ban, there will be a fascinating narrative to be discussed and dissected no matter what the outcome.

There are plenty of other fascinating events and angles in track and field, of course. American speedster Alyson Felix's showdown with Jamaican Veronica Campbell-Brown in the 200-meters Wednesday will be must-see, and more immediately, Mo Farah will have the eyes and weight of a nation on him when he tries to win Great Britain's first gold medal in the 10,000 meters.

Athletes we already recognize by name and accomplishments will achieve even more, and some relatively unknowns will reveal their greatness with unexpected victories and feats. Four years ago, Bolt was already a star, but it took him precisely 9.58 seconds to rocket to an entirely different stratosphere. Barring disaster in Saturday's preliminary heats, he'll have some extraordinarily fast company alongside him during Sunday's final, with gold, bragging rights, and so much more less than 10 seconds away.

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