At this year’s Olympics, just like at London 2012, the most popular medal event is likely to be the shortest. On Sunday, at 10.25pm local time, billions of people are expected to watch the fastest humans on the planet race in the men’s 100-meter final. For each athlete, taking even a second to cover every 10 meters will cost them the chance to medal.
At the starting blocks, there are likely to be three men to watch. The first is 29-year-old Usain Bolt, the Olympic champion and fastest man in the world. The second, clad in his red lycra bodysuit, is the American Justin Gatlin, who, aged 34, is experiencing a career resurgence after serving two doping bans in 2001 and 2006. The third is Jamaica’s Yohan Blake, Bolt’s training partner and the second-fastest man in the world.
In May, I spent five days with Blake as he traveled through Germany—running a race in the town of Herzogenaurach and then attending medical and sponsorship appointments in the city of Munich.
Four years before, Blake had captivated me at the London Olympics. Just 22, he held the fastest 100-meter time in the world that year, and was a favorite to win. As he hammed it up at the starting blocks, growling and clawing at the cameras, I waited to see if the man known as the Beast would that day, August 5, 2012, outrun the Lightning Bolt.
That Games, he didn’t. Blake came in second at the 100-meter final and the 200-meter final, four days later. His only gold of London 2012 was in the Jamaican men’s 100-meter relay. (Blake ran the third leg; Bolt, the last.) Blake it seemed, wasn’t faster than lightning.
Still, things looked good for the athlete. Four years younger than Bolt, he was only just approaching his peak. Blake was still the youngest sprinter to have run the 100-meter in under 10 seconds, he was still the youngest ever 100-meter world champion. In the year after the London Olympics, Blake commanded up to $150,000 for a sprint appearance.
He had every reason to believe that in 2016, Olympic gold would be his.
Then, the injuries came. In April 2013, while at a 100-meter race in Jamaica, the hamstring in Blake’s right leg tore, causing him to miss the rest of the season. Doctors told him to rest, to take it easy, but Blake, who trains relentlessly, could not.
“I believe if I’m sleeping, there is this next guy is working harder than me,” he says. “I can’t have him doing that.”
Fear of falling behind his competitors pushed Blake to continue training, strengthening his left leg while the right healed. “I was compensating on one leg more than the other,” Blake says, ruefully.
In July 2014, that overburdened left leg failed in the most horrific of ways. As Blake reached the 60-meter mark at a race in Glasgow, Scotland, his hamstring ripped off his pelvis bone, bunching up in his thigh.
“That pain was devastating,” Blake tells me. “It pained me so much, man. Couldn’t even imagine.”
Surgeons in Luxembourg reattached the muscle and told Blake that he would face months of recovery. Critics dismissed him as a young talent that had crashed and burned. His team feared that his career was over.
Blake missed the rest of his 2014 races, and most of his 2015 commitments. He was, he says, running scared, terrified that his hamstring might again tear off the bone.
But the Olympics were coming up and Blake was determined not to miss them. Gradually, with the help of his coach and his pastor, he overcame his terror and began running fast again.
When I met him in May of this year, Blake had almost regained his former strength. For each of the three days we were in Munich, we would get in a taxi and head to the city’s Olympic stadium—Munich hosted the Games in 1972—for Blake to train.
I watched as Blake went through the rigors of a sprinter’s regimen, exerting himself to seemingly impossible levels.
To help make his starts more explosive, Blake jumped, knees pressed together, over six hurdles, each more than three feet off the ground. To build speed, he ran 18 60-meter sprints, a look of fixed determination spread across his face. To build strength, he pumped iron in the track’s down-at-heel gym.
Blake was so focused during these training sessions, so fixed on his dream to win Olympic gold. But many commentators say it will only ever be that—a dream.
Bolt is their favorite to win, despite hamstring niggles. Other critics favor Gatlin, the American sprinter with the troubled past. In some medal predictions tables, Blake doesn’t even appear in third place.
Blake and I talked about his doubters when we were in Germany—the sprinter is well aware that many think his best days are behind him. But in our final conversation, he was defiant. “Nothing come easy, but you must never think that you can’t make it,” he said.
When he lines up at the track in Rio—assuming that he makes it to the final—Blake will do so believing that he will take gold. Once the starting gun fires, he has less than 10 seconds to make this belief a reality.
[Source: News Week]