Martin Meissner, Associated Press
Let's face it, before the addition of synchronized skeet shooting and bikini volleyball, the Olympics was a track meet and, as far as some of us are concerned, it still is. Today, the track competition begins and not a minute too soon. Here are some of the things to watch for:
The man everyone will be watching of course is Jamaica's Usain Bolt, who stole the show in Beijing. In 2008 and 2009, he ran times that weren't expected for another century, if ever, and, at 6-foot-5, seemed to be precursor for the next evolutionary step in sprinting. But in the past year he has proved beatable. Yohan Blake beat Bolt in the 100 and 200 in the Jamaican Trials, and Tyson Gay beat him last year. In London, he'll be part of a field that will include five of the seven fastest men in history.
The best hopes to break the Jamaican stranglehold on the sprints are Justin Gatlin and Gay, a pair of 30-year-old sprinters who are running out of time. Only one sprinter over the age of 28 has ever won the Olympic 100-meters dash: 32-year-old Linford Christie in 1992.
Gay is cursed with a sluggish start, but his top-end speed approaches that of Bolt's, and he is a polished technician. He is also fragile. A triple gold medalist at the 2007 world championships, he was waylaid by injuries in the 2008 Olympics and failed to even medal. A year ago he underwent hip surgery. He hasn't won a world championship race since 2009. Gatlin, the 2004 Olympic champ, has made a remarkable comeback since serving a four-year drug suspension. He won the U.S. Olympic Trials.
History's fastest white man
Christophe Lemaitre of France is known as the only white man ever to run under 10 seconds in the 100-meter dash, first achieving the feat in 2010, 42 years after the barrier was broken by Jim Hines. Like Gay, he is a poor starter with great cruising speed. It's just a question of how much he spots his rivals in the first few strides of the race. Lamaitre announced last week that he will contest only the 200 in London — he has a best of 19.82 and won the 200 bronze in last year's world championships. That might be a sound idea when you consider how fast 100-meter times are these days. The winning times in the 2000 and 2004 Olympics might not even medal in today's world when 9.7s have become almost commonplace.
Your heart is pulling for Lolo Jones, the star-crossed American who was meters away from winning the 100 hurdles in the Beijing Games when she hit the penultimate hurdle and staggered to seventh place. Her grace in defeat and her often-recited childhood story — grew up poor, living in a church basement with her single mother — plus her looks, have made her a media and fan favorite. It has also made her wealthier, since she is bombarded with endorsements. Since Beijing, she has struggled with injuries. It was almost miraculous that she even made the U.S. team, given her poor performances this year. Medaling in London would take another miracle.
No one has been the source of as much controversy as a pair of South Africans, starting with Oscar Pistorius. Born without fibulas, he had both legs amputated several inches below the knee before his first birthday. He is able to run by wearing carbon fiber artificial limbs — hence, the nickname "Blade Runner." The debate has raged for years — do the prosthetics, which spring him down the track with each foot strike, give him an unfair advantage in the 400-meter dash, or are they merely an equalizer given the absence of calves and feet. A team of scientists gave Pistorius a battery of tests in 2007 and, based on those results, track's governing body disqualified him from competing in the Beijing Olympics, only to be reversed upon appeal and a court. However, Pistorius failed to meet the Olympic qualifying standard and was unable to compete anyway. Scientists still disagree about what, if any, advantages the prosthetics provide, as Pistorious continues to compete in both paralympic and able-bodied competitions.
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