LONDON -- On July 1 at the National Stadium in Kingston, Jamaica, Usain Bolt lost a 200-meter race. It was the Jamaican Olympic Trials, and Bolt, 25, was beaten by his 22-year-old training partner, Yohan (The Beast) Blake. It was a stunning race visual: Bolt, who has said repeatedly over the last five years that he would never be run down from behind, was absolutely run down from behind by Blake and raggedly dipped at the finish line, like a once-great sprinter trying to snatch some dignity from an embarrassing loss.
Based on that defeat, his previous loss to Blake two days earlier in the 100 meters and the fact that he was dealing with a nagging back injury, many very knowledgeable people in track and field concluded that Bolt was vulnerable in both races at the Olympic Games.
"That was probably the worst race Bolt has run in five years," says NBC analyst and four-time Olympic medalist Ato Boldon, who was one of those doubting -- but not overtly picking against -- Bolt after Kingston. "He looked like someone running the last sprint at practice. That's how bad it was."
That Kingston race now seems like it happened a decade ago. Bolt came to London and won the 100 meters in nearly -- not fully, but nearly -- classic Bolt fashion. He caught Justin Gatlin of the U.S. just past 50 meters and won in an Olympic record of 9.63 seconds, the second-fastest time in history. Blake was second in 9.75, a closer race than Bolt's win in Beijing, but still a decisive win. On Thursday night, Bolt tries to become the first man in history to win the Olympic 100 and 200 meters in consecutive Games.
In light of his win in the 100 meters, it's worth examining precisely how dominant Bolt has been in the 200 meters since his makeover in 2008. (Understand: Bolt was a precocious and terrific young 200-meter runner; he ran a world junior record of 19.93 at age 17 in 2004, but then didn't go under 20 seconds again for two full years).
But from the start of 2008, when Bolt emerged as a bigger, stronger, more committed athlete, he won 16 consecutive 200-meter finals before losing to Blake in Kingston. (The "old" Bolt had finished the 2007 season with three consecutive losses at 200 meters -- in the world championship final to Tyson Gay of the U.S. and in major meets in Zurich and Brussels).
Since the start of that 2008 season, Bolt has run under 19.70 seconds nine times, including his world record of 19.19 seconds at the 2009 world championships. Three other sprinters -- Blake, Gay and Walter Dix of the U.S. -- have done it one time each. After false-starting out of the 100 meters at the world championships last September in Daegu, South Korea, Bolt won the 200 meters in 19.40, which at the time was the fourth-fastest time in history (behind Bolt's 19.19, Bolt's 19.30 at the 2008 Olympics and Michael Johnson's then-world record of 19.32 at the 1996 Olympics).
But 13 days later Blake ran a stunning 19.26 in a major meet in Brussels, a performance that included a poor reaction time of .269 seconds, a relatively laconic curve and then the fastest straightaway in history: approximately 9.1 seconds.
"Come on man, we were all surprised," said Bolt of that performance. On Thursday night in London, Bolt can take a rarified place in history, but it is Blake's 19.26, his potential for vast technical improvement in the 200 meters and his victory over Bolt in Kingston that provide the intrigue.
In the media zone following the 100 meters, Bolt was dogging Blake from across 20 feet of concrete and digital recorders. "I told Yohan Blake that the 200 meters will be different, because it's my pet event," shouted Bolt, theatrically, while Blake turned his head to listen.
On Wednesday night in the Olympic semifinals, Blake exhibited a vastly improved turn and jogged home in 20.01, impressively. Spearmon closed on the easing-up Blake to finish with a lean in 20.02, over Lemaitre. Both qualified for the final. Bolt was less aggressive on the curve in his race and also strolled to the line in 20.18. Immediately afterward he made a pushing-down motion with both hands as if to say easy, easy. Spearmon will be the only U.S. runner in the final.
It is perilous to pick against Bolt at this point. It feels vaguely like picking against the sunrise. But Blake's PR is outstanding and just five weeks ago Bolt was a mess. "The 100-meter final was Bolt's best performance, ever," says Boldon. "The field that was assembled against him, coming off two losses at the Trials, and no races since, no matter how supremely confident he is, I have to think a part of him was like, 'Man, I don't know.' I'm not worried about his speed endurance [in the 200 meters], but I don't think he's a 100 percent lock because Blake is so strong and is such a good competitor. The thing that I think gives Bolt the edge is that Bolt is a such a good turn runner, so I see the race going, Bolt gets out, leads off the turn, Blake has to catch up. And that's really asking a lot for a human being to run down Bolt."
Whether Blake can beat Bolt, or even push him toward the Olympic record of 19.30 (or the world record), the two of them are likely to be far ahead of a field that includes world championship bronze medalist Christophe Lemaitre of France (personal best of 19.80) and Wallace Spearmon of the U.S., who is the seventh-fastest man in history with a time of 19.65, but hasn't run that fast since 2006, and has a season's best of 19.95.
They will both chase Blake, who will chase Bolt and, unlike in Kingston, not catch him. A world record would be surprising, but not shocking. An Olympic record would be no surprise at all.
Gold: Usain Bolt (JAM)
Silver: Yohan Blake (JAM)
Bronze: Wallace Spearmon (USA)