Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Men’s 100, A Preview, Preview


The men’s 100 is always one of the most exciting events at any Major championship. But usually that excitement occurs during the rounds, especially in the final.

This season, however, has already seen a lot of excitement. The first salvo came way back on April 16th when Steve Mullings ran 9.90 to get the season humming. That got fans anxious to see what Usain Bolt and Tyson Gay would do when they opened up! We finally got responses from the last two World Champions when Bolt went 9.91 twice (5/26 & 5/30) and then Gay motored 9.79 on 6/4 – the same day that Mullings went 9.80 in a different venue. And all seemed right with the sprint world.

Then the sprint market started to fall. On June 23rd we watched Tyson Gay appear to struggle in the first round of the 100 at the U.S. Trials. The next day Tyson did not run in the semis and told us that an injury was forcing him out. Shortly thereafter he had surgery to end his season.

Then, nearly a month to the day after Tyson’s struggling opening round in Eugene, we got Usain Bolt’s third 100 of the season – a struggling, near loss to countryman Nesta Carter in 9.88. Suddenly, not only is Gay out completely, but Bolt doesn’t appear to be the same sprinter that won in WR times in Beijing and Berlin.

Now, almost a month to the day before the start of the World Championships, the race that was supposed to be the “Showdown” between Usain Bolt and Tyson Gay, has taken a completely different spin.

For many the conversation has now moved to “can Asafa Powell” finally get a gold medal. As the man with over 70 sub10 races to his credit, has zero Olympic medals and only 2 bronze medals in World Championships competition. Some see this as an open door to redemption for Powell.

Others see it as an opportunity for another Jamaican to step up and claim the crown to “keep it in the family” so to speak. After all, Steve Mullings started out at 9.90 and is down to 9.80 as we speak. And Yohan Blake, a young man many felt destined during his junior days, ran 9.88 last year, started the season with a windy 9.80, and at 9.95 is positioned well to make the final. Both have had their own injury bugaboos however, and they are not as sharp as they were earlier in the season.

U.S. fans also see a crack in the door. Our last gold was Gay’s win in Osaka (‘07), and with the Beijing and Berlin winner looking “vulnerable” there is talk that U.S. champion Walter Dix could run to victory. And some viewing a potential win by former champion Justin Gatlin, as vindication for the “time out” he was given by the sport. Yet, they too have had injury issues over the course of the season and their post Trials performances have been good but not great. Meanwhile Trials third placer, Mike Rodgers, placed third in the Monaco race against Bolt, leaving some to feel that if he can’t beat Bolt at this stage that gold will elude him.

And though Jamaica and the U.S. seem to have a stranglehold on this event, one must consider at least two “outsiders” that do have the potential to upset the apple cart. One is Christophe Lemaitre (FRA) who last year became the first white sprinter to run under 10 seconds. He’s repeated that feat three times this year (with another right at 10.00). But as he showed in his 5th place run in the Monaco race, he’s still a bit “rough around the edges” to prevail against sprinters of this caliber.

The other outsider that should at least be mentioned in the conversation is African Ngoni Makusha (ZIM) who ran a blazing 9.89 to set a collegiate record and win the NCAA championships. And while Makusha’s technique is much cleaner than Lemaitre’s, he’s the least experienced sprinter in the field. This is his first season giving it any real attention. And he has only two races under his belt – a 9.97 ACC Championship win and the NCAA Championships win. At least championship races don’t seem to bother him! But this IS a step above where’s he’s run before. To his credit, however, his forte before this year was the long jump – and he placed 4th in that event in Beijing. So perhaps the bright lights won’t get to him.

So where does that leave the event? Well it appears to be the most open it has been in a championship setting since the 2003 World Championships in Paris. Then defending champion Maurice Greene was also injured and struggling with his form – eventually being eliminated in his semi final. The WR holder at the time, Tim Montgomery newly minted at the end of ‘02, found himself beaten into 4th place, as long time vet Kim Collins (SKN) stole gold with youngster Darrel Brown (TRI) taking silver after setting a WJR in the quarterfinals (10.01). That’s the kind of thing that happens in races with lots of uncertainty.

I’m not quite ready to predict this outcome for 2011 – not just yet. There is still nearly a month to the day before we start the rounds. That’s still time to get sharp or sharper – though not enough time to “get in shape”. There are still two Diamond League events left, and I would like to see at least one more race from each of the principles before I step out on that prediction limb. With 30 days to go, however, it looks like a potential toss up race. I will say that the main characters in this “play” are Bolt, Powell, Mullings, Dix and Gatlin. All have been in a Major final before – Mullings on the Jamaican 4x1. And all have won medals – Bolt & Gatlin gold, Dix and Powell bronze, Mulllings relay gold. This will not be a “Circuit” race. This is a championship setting and managing the rounds and one’s nerves will make a difference.

The key to it all is still Bolt – and where he is competitively in one months time. We know at this point that he will not be the 9.58/9.69 monster that we saw in Beijing and Berlin. Not struggling to 9.88 with only weeks left to get sharp. The question then becomes how much faster can he get in a few weeks time? For my money after watching him in Monaco there is still much room for technical improvement. His start isn’t sharp. His transition from drive phase to full sprinting movement has been off and he lacks fluidity. With that said I think (IMHO) that he can take another .10 to .15 off his time by Daegu – putting him somewhere in the 9.73 to 9.78 range. Good enough on the low end for another Bolt romp in a major; close enough on the high end to open the door for someone else. Definitely so if he isn’t able to drop below 9.80, because historically we’ve seen several individuals drop into the 9.8x range even when their PR’s were in the 9.9x range – and this race will be full of men that have run 9.8x. Leaving the question: who is capable of pulling off an upset should Bolt falter? My best guess lies among the foursome of Powell, Mullings, Dix and Gatlin.

So there is my first cut. I still need to see another race or two before I’m ready to step out on that prediction limb. I’ll give my final thoughts after London closes on August 6th.

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