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Hot Stuff: US, Jamaican Sprinters to Clash in Olympic Showdown

Never in the history of Olympic track and field have two countries had so much talent concentrated in the sprints (100, 200 and 4x 100 meters relay) for men and women like Jamaica and the United States have before the London Games. The pool of super speedsters is truly incredible, and the sprint rivalry/ animosity between the two countries is well documented. Americans have dominated in the Olympics, traditionally, but Jamaica, which has consistently produced great individual talent over the years, swept its big rival in 2008 in Beijing, winning 5 of 6 gold medals (both women’s relays were disqualified from dropping the baton, the US in the first round, Jamaica in the final).

As a subplot of this collective rivalry, the most obvious question is this: can Usain Bolt repeat his 100 / 200 double from Beijing and become undoubtedly the greatest sprinter in history? Bolt seemed untouchable in 2008 and 2009, when he improved his world marks in the 100 (9.59) and 200 (19.19) at the World Championships in Berlin, but his disqualification for false start in the 100 final at the Worlds in Daegu last year raised eyebrows, and the recent Jamaican championships, which also served as Olympic Trials, showed he’s human after all.

Bolt’s training partner Yohan Blake, the 100 world champion in 2011, won the 100 convincingly in 9.75, the fastest time in the world this year, with Bolt second in 9.86 and veteran Asafa Powell third in 9.88. In an unusually slow 200, Blake handled Bolt again, 19.80 to 19.83, handing him his first defeat in the furlong in six years. It was no fluke – Blake had clocked an impressive 19.26 in 2011 becoming the second fastest man in history. Does Blake have Bolt’s number? Is there a problem? Bolt’s withdrawal from the July 20 Diamond League meet in Monaco adds to the mystery, but the fastest man in history said he’ll be ready to defend his titles in London.

The US features veterans Justin Gatlin and Tyson Gay in the 100, along with newcomer Ryan Bailey. Gatlin, the 2004 Olympic 100 champion, won the Trials in a solid 9.80, his fastest time since coming back from a four-year ban for doping offense that kept him out of the Beijing Games. Gay, the fastest American ever at 9.69, was second in 9.86 and is back to top level after being bothered for a time by a hip injury. This seems to be a dependable combo, but Gatlin is 30 and Gay will turn 30 in London. With the exception of Great Britain’s Linford Christie in 1992, no other Olympic 100 winner was older than 28.

With Gay, Gatlin and injured Walter Dix (bronze in the 100 / 200 in Beijing) skipping the 200, Wallace Spearmon won the Trials in a wind-aided 19.82. Jamaica has clearly the advantage here, as it does in the relay, where Michael Frater, Nesta Carter or Kemar Bailey-Cole will join Blake, Bolt and Powell. The Jamaicans have taken the world record to 37.10 in 2008 and 37.04 in 2011. No US team has run better than 37.40 in 20 years and the bad habit of dropping the baton has become prevalent. With decent exchanges the US should break the national record and maybe push Jamaica under 37 seconds.

The women’s sprints are equally supercharged, although we know that world records are impossible. Florence Griffith Joyner, God bless her soul, took care of that 24 years ago when she killed the women’s sprints; or put the records away for a century. Track connoisseurs are still debating if Ben Johnson was truly the big catch in Seoul and feel the big one got away, not to be seen again on a track before an untimely death. Whatever Bob Kersee believes, what happened in 1988 was unfair to great sprinters, themselves African-American, of the past, like Wilma Rudolph, Wyomia Tyus and Evelyn Ashford, and to all generations of sprinters that came after, from the disgraced, super-talented Marion Jones to today’s stars.

Jamaica’s Shelly Ann Fraser-Pryce won the national championships 100 in 10.70, the fastest time in the world this year, and will try to join Tyus (1964, 68) and Gail Devers (1992, 96) as the only two-time 100 winner in Olympic history. Along with veterans Veronica Campbell Brown and Kerron Stewart she will battle world champion and OT winner Carmelita Jeter, the second fastest in history (10.64 in 2009), Tiana Madison and Allyson Felix. Jeter turns 33 in November and no sprinter has won the Olympic 100 title at this age. Felix tied for third with training partner Jeneba Tarmoh, who gave up her chance to compete in a runoff. Advantage Jamaica.

Advantage US in the 200, where Felix ran a personal best 21.69 at the Trials in beautiful, gazelle-like, almost effortless fashion, beating Jeter (22.11) and Sanya Richards-Ross (22.22). There hasn’t been a more elegant 200 sprinter since Tommie Smith. A three-time world champion in her signature event, Felix has finished second to Campbell-Brown in the last two Olympic 200 finals, but this time only an injury could stop her. Campbell-Brown was only third at the Jamaican championships, behind Fraser-Pryce (22.10) and Sherone Simpson (22.37) in a pedestrian 22.42. It would be a miracle if she wins a third straight title in this event. There’s so much talent in the 200 that a 21.8 does not guarantee a medal.

The 4×100 relay should be close, and the winner will be decided by the quality of the exchanges. Who gets the baton to the anchor first should win, probably with a time close to the world record (41.37) set 27 years ago by – who else? – the German Democratic Republic. Somebody explain the kids what that means.