Late Wednesday came word that Asafa Powell (JAM) was pulling out of the Stockholm Showdown with Usain Bolt (JAM) and Tyson Gay (US). While I was disappointed when I got the text message alerting me to the news I was not entirely surprised. One because the trade mark of elite sprinting in the New Millennium has been the lack of top level match ups in the men’s short sprints (100/200). The other because the history of Asafa Powell is rife with missed/avoided big races.
Powell became a blip on the sprint radar in 2003. That season was his first under 10.10 as he ran to a PR 10.02 in Brussels. It was marked, however, by his quarterfinal at the World Championships in Paris in which he and Jon Drummond both false started out. The Olympic season of 2004 saw dramatic improvement in his times as he improved down to 9.87 (again in Brussels). But his undefeated season was marred by his 5th place finish in the Olympic final. These two “inaugural” seasons among the elite were the last where we saw Powell compete regularly and against all comers (specifically the best of the elite) on a regular basis.
2005 saw Powell get even faster, as he had a spectacular (at that time) series of races in May/June that culminated in a new WR – 9.84 (Kingston), 9.85 (Ostrava), 9.84w (Eugene), 9.77 WR (Athens). This series of races was highlighted by two things. One was a loss to Olympic Champion Justin Gatlin in Eugene which would mark the last time the two would go head to head – and Powell’s last head to head against a top rival outside of a major championship until 2008. And Powell’s first injury in what has become a recurring series of injuries every year since. This one kept him out of the World Championships in Helsinki, as the new WR holder watched as Olympic champion Gatlin added the World title to his resume.
2006 saw both Powell and Gatlin run well early, with Gatlin dominating the clock in May. But it also saw Powell complaining of slight injuries and repeated failures to get both Powell and Gatlin on the track in head to head meetings. Reportedly because Powell felt that as WR holder he should be paid in excess of the Olympic and World Champion. In what has been one of the most ridiculous set of races I’ve ever seen in a meet, we were treated to two separate 100 meter dashes at the 2006 Prefonataine Classic – one featuring Justin Gatlin, the other featuring Asafa Powell – since negotiations couldn’t put them on the track together. Gatlin winning his section in 9.88, Powell his in 9.93w.
The next couple of weeks following Prefontaine saw both seasons change dramatically. Gatlin was suspended for his positive test from the Kansas Relays and didn’t compete again until his race in Estonia earlier this week. Powell regained health, ran throughout Europe, tied his WR 9.77 twice – in Gateshead and Zurich – and in the process ran to a record setting 12 sub10 races during the season. With Gatlin now gone, it appeared that Powell had the sprint wars to himself, but finishing behind Powell in Stuttgart, Berlin, and finally Zurich (in a PR 9.84) was a steadily improving Tyson Gay – and a new challenger for Powell.
2007 saw Gay solidify his growth from ‘06 with a slightly windy 9.76 (+2.2) early on in New York, 9.79 (+2.5) in Carson and a PR equaling 9.84 at nationals. In contrast we got more injury talk from Powell, and no head to heads until the World Championships in Osaka – though we did see Powell in Beograd (9.97), Oslo (9.93), and Rome (9.90). Again the lack of head to heads turned to the talk of contract negotiations in which the WR holder wanted top billing. When they finally met however, Osaka brought Tyson Gay his first global gold medal with a 9.85 victory in which Powell finished 3rd in 9.96. Two weeks later, however, saw Powell run 9.74 & 9.78 in a heat and final on the same day in Rieti – the 9.74 a new WR. A race without Gay or Osaka silver medalist Derrick Atkins as Zurich tried to negotiate a post Worlds race between Powell and Gay, but Powell declined choosing instead to compete in Rieti. Powell ran again in Brussels (9.84) and Stuttgart (9.83) – both without Osaka conquerors Gay and Atkins – before calling it a season.
2008 opened similarly to 2007, with the emergence of another strong rival. But this time the rival was a countryman as Usain Bolt exploded on the scene early with runs of 9.76 (Kingston), 9.92 (Port of Spain) and a WR 9.72 (New York) – with Gay running 9.85 in the New York race. Neither of the three met until Olympic Trials time. At US Trials Gay ran 9.77 (new AR) and 9.68w – then saw his season effectively put to bed with his injury in the 200. At Jamaica’s Trials it was Bolt over Powell (9.85 to 9.97). and the official changing of the hierarchy in Jamaica. Powell’s next race in Rome saw him pull up with a hamstring injury, but return 11 days later to edge Bolt (9.88 to 9.89) in Stockholm. Powell would not face Bolt again until Beijing, but continued with wins in London (9.94) and Monaco (9.82) before placing 5th in Beijing (9.95). Powell once again missed the Zurich race against his Beijing conquerors (Bolt/Thompson/Dix/Martina), but did find his way to Lausanne and a 9.72 PR win minus Bolt.
2009 followed the now established pattern. Top rivals Bolt and Gay opened hot (150 WR with 9.91 en route for Bolt 19.58 for Gay) amid talk of Powell injury. No head to heads until Jamaica Trials with Bolt again over Powell – 9.86 to 9.97. Then a loss to Gay in Rome (9.77 to 9.88) before the bronze medal performance in Berlin – Bolt (9.58), Gay (9.71), Powell (9.84). This was followed by a loss to Bolt in Zurich (9.81 to 9.88) and a loss to Gay in Shanghai (9.69 to 9.85). Then word that he had once again been nursing an injury.
Then of course there has been this season. The outstanding early season for Powell amid talk of being in the best shape of his life, and being ready to set a new PR this season. Then the losses to Gay (Gateshead) and Bolt (Paris). And now word that he has been injured since Paris, with no indication when he may be back on the track. Which more than likely will also negate his appearance in Brussels – up until last week the only confirmed meeting between the world’s three top sprinters this year.
So, as I stated up top, very disappointing, but when one follows the history of Asafa it is not too surprising. While he has become the most prolific sprinter in history with well over 60 sub10 legal clockings to his credit (7 under 9.80!), his spectacular times have come against less than the best in competition. None of his sub 9.80 races have come in a major, and only once (Berlin) has he run under 9.90 in a major. Outside of majors, only a handful of his sub 10’s have come against the superstars of the sprints – his best showing in ‘06 against the then developing Gay.
For most of his career, he has competed against the best of the second tier sprinters. And while this has given him awesome stats – lots of fast times, few loses, and high annual rankings – it hasn’t hardened him to the tough world of the sprint wars. A game where toughness and grit are as much in demand as pure speed – the qualities that win the big races. In contrast his primary competition (Maurice Greene and Justin Gatlin early, and Usain Bolt and Tyson Gay most recently) were all hardened through the rigors of competing against the best early on and taking their lumps!
Greene took hard losses early to the likes of Carl Lewis, Ato Boldon, Donovan Bailey and Bruny Surin before finally coming into his own with his own gold medal in ‘97. Bolt was regularly behind Wallace Spearmon, Xavier Carter, and Tyson Gay before coming into his own. And Gay was a regular behind Justin Gatlin, Leonard Scott, and Asafa Powell himself before coming into his own. They all shared the misfortune (or perhaps fortune) of watching others beat them. Making them more competitive – hungry to turn the tables. They all had to learn to dig down DEEP to find what it takes to win against the best, and to do it under pressure. There was no path of easy, “shut it down” victories on their paths to success. Adversity and challenge was a daily staple. And you could/can see a fierceness in their eyes at the starting line and during the race – competitors that WILL NOT be denied!
And it is this fierceness that Powell has lacked throughout his career. While the best of the best in sprinting have typically been like high end muscle cars – think vintage Chevy Camaro’s, Dodge Charger’s and Shelby Mustang’s – Powell has been more like a Ferrari. Perhaps the fastest car on the road, but you don’t really want to race it against that supercharged Corvette Z1, because like Brian O’Connor in “The Fast and the Furious” you’ll be saying “I almost had you” while the engine is ready to fall on the ground! And that’s where Powell’s career has been to date. Perhaps the fastest car on the road, but a bit delicate for the big races against the supercharged and muscle cars.
It appears that another season is done with no wins against his major competition. And with yet another trio of major championships on tap for 2011, 2012 & 2013, the window on Powell’s career is rapidly closing. In 2005, there were those that took it for granted that he would have triple gold at this point – not the two bronzes and 5th that he picked up. There is no doubt that he is fast. But he and his people are going to have to get him tougher and more resilient if there is any hope that he will make his way to the top of the podium. Bolt and Gay are still young, and there are youngsters like Walter Dix and Yohan Blake that are going through that process of taking their lumps as we speak – and getting tougher and hungry. The road ahead is not getting any easier.
There have been many very fast sprinters that have not gotten been able to master their “muscle car” counterparts when it mattered – Ralph Metcalf, Harry Jerome, Leroy Burrell, Ato Boldon, Calvin Smith, and Frank Fredericks come to mind. Some of the fastest sprinters of their eras – they just couldn’t get past that athlete or two that kept them from ultimate victory. That’s where Powell sits at this moment.
For my money he needs to get tougher. He needs to race more. Needs to take his lumps. Needs to get hungry. He needs to race Bolt and Gay in order to get better. Competing against Mike Rodgers, Keston Bledman, Trell Kimmons and Mario Forsythe isn’t going to get it done. Three and five meter wins against these guys won’t prepare you for the “whoosh” of Usain Bolt or Tyson Gay at the 60 meter mark.
I’m disappointed about Stockholm. Not that I felt that Powell was going to be a game changer in the race, but because we need to see him in the race. I want the event to be more than a head to head among the Big Two. I want to see the final in Daegu as a question mark before the gun for the final goes off. I want to see the 100 meters where it was in the late 90’s – with four or five men taking to the line as EQUALS with the outcome in question. And for THAT to happen we need the best of the best on the track competing against each other on a regular basis. Some need to take their lumps in order to reach the level of the others. Sometimes you have to win in order to lose. And those that fear losing, will. And I think therein lies the career of Powell to date. We will see what story the 2011 Chapter writes.