Bolt's all charged up

Jamaica's Usain Bolt (fourth from left) on his way to winning his first-round 100m heat at the Olympic Stadium. He is aiming to win a third straight gold in the event in this morning's final.
Jamaica's Usain Bolt (fourth from left) on his way to winning his first-round 100m heat at the Olympic Stadium. He is aiming to win a third straight gold in the event in this morning's final.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Jamaican eyes third consecutive 100m gold as Gatlin aims to reprise win at 2004 Olympics

RIO DE JANEIRO • The war of words between Justin Gatlin and Usain Bolt is a reminder that 100m sprinting is not that far removed from prize-fighting or show business.

Since arriving in Rio, Bolt has certainly done his best to drum up ticket sales for the 100m final, rarely resisting the opportunity to ram home his psychological advantage over the American and to remind the public of the different records both men will be chasing down the straight at the Olympic Stadium this morning (Singapore time).

For the Jamaican, the chance to become the first athlete in Olympic history to win three 100m titles in a row and to complete the sprint triple - 100m, 200m and 4x100m relay - at three successive Games; for Gatlin, the chance to become, at 34, the oldest Olympic 100m champion and the first to win 12 years apart.

Gatlin won the 100m in Athens in 9.85sec. In Rio he will almost certainly have to run quicker to win. But he is also fresh from running his personal best (9.74sec) last year.

It is hard to tell whether Bolt and Gatlin genuinely dislike each other or, like boxers, they are happy to play their roles to add to the hype.

The mood music for the second part of their grudge match is pretty much note-for-note the same as it was at the world championships in Beijing last year.

Gatlin, fresh from a series of sub-10sec times for the 100m, believes he has the technique, speed and confidence to end Bolt's Olympic reign once and for all.

Bolt, angered by Gatlin's claim he pulled out of the Jamaican trials with a fake injury, wants to defy the American by beating him on a day when the world will be watching.

It is certainly part of his strategy, at a time when his own form and fitness are far from proven, to probe the mental and tactical weaknesses of his main rival for gold.

The evidence of the eye rather than time on the clock works in Bolt's favour. Gatlin last beat him at a Diamond League meeting in Rome more than two years ago, having never beaten the Jamaican at a major championship.

However, the American is the fastest man on the planet this year, as he was last year and in 2014.

Despite suffering a hamstring injury, he has managed 9.80sec this year to Bolt's 9.88sec.

Gatlin is also defying conventional and scientific thought. A study by the University of Colorado last year found that the world's top 10 fastest sprinters stopped improving at 25.

Bolt, who turns 30 in six days, set his best time at 23; Gatlin is peaking at 34.

Ato Boldon, the former Trinidadian sprinter, believes that improved technique, particularly at the start, has made Gatlin a faster and more consistent sprinter than in his power-pumped early days.

While the American has also credited shortening his stride, Boldon has pointed out the pattern of their races favours Bolt, the pursuer.

"Usain's race model is always going to be a problem for Gatlin," he said. "He can't get away far enough to withstand Bolt's last 50m."

That was certainly the case in Beijing, where Gatlin tied up in the last 20m, and it could well be the same 12 months on in Rio.

Trayvon Bromell, the talented American sprinter, and Yohan Blake, the former world champion from Jamaica, are two others who can realistically match the pace of the big two.

THE TIMES, LONDON, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 15, 2016, with the headline 'Bolt's all charged up'. Print Edition | Subscribe