The sprinter who would dethrone Usain Bolt, his Jamaican training partner known as the Beast, sits before a crowded room of reporters, wearing a T-shirt that says “Eat My Dust”.
The nickname and the shirt speaks of sprinting’s familiar bravado. A certain audacity is required to aspire to be the world’s fastest man. But there is no preening confidence about Yohan Blake, no bold assertion, no outrageous gesture.
He has run the year’s fastest time at 100 metres (9.75 seconds) and last year posted track and field history’s second-fastest mark at 200 metres (19.26 seconds). At the recent Jamaican Olympic trials, Blake defeated Bolt in both events. In the 200, Blake did what few thought possible — he ran down Bolt from behind.
The Olympics’ most anticipated event, the men’s 100 metres, will come Sunday. Blake does not say that he is the one to beat, only that he is among the competitors. It was Bolt who nicknamed him the Beast, because Blake trains with ruthless purpose. Perhaps his resolve comes from a poor childhood. He sold empty beer bottles and carried water on his head for distances, as none was available at home.
“When my coach gives me a programme, I damage it,” says Blake, 22, who has never participated on a stage as grand as the Olympics. He watched at home on television while Bolt dominated in Beijing in 2008.
Despite his troubled season, Bolt has still run three of the year’s five fastest times. And no one in the Olympic field has come within 11 hundredths of a second of Bolt’s best time. What no one knows is whether Bolt can approach his peak here, where the weather and his sprinting mechanics could be mercurial.
So does Blake have what it takes? Can he avoid destabilising anxiety? Top sprinters will run three rounds of the 100 instead of the usual four. That is one less chance to make a mistake, also one less to find a winning rhythm.
There has been a tweak, too, to the zero tolerance rule of the false start. At the 2011 world championships, Blake flinched slightly in an adjacent lane in the 100 and Bolt shot out of the blocks. Then Bolt yanked off his shirt, stunned at being disqualified. In Bolt’s absence, Blake won the race.
At these Games, a sprinter remains eligible with slight twitching. Disqualification will come only if hands leave the ground and feet exit the blocks.
Blake says he isn’t concerned about Bolt, only about himself. He relaxes away from the track by watching cricket, his favourite sport. “Don’t panic,” he tells himself. “Get to the line and focus on what I did in training.”
Former Olympic champion Maurice Greene believes the shock will come if Blake loses, not if he wins. Bolt, who is 6 ft 5 in tall, has been losing power early in races by rising at too sharp an angle. “He’s not in that good pushing position. So he rushes everything else.”
Blake, who is 5’11”, says Sunday’s final would meet expectations. “I don’t need to scare the other athletes,” says he. “When I’m running, I will scare them.”
© 2012 The New York Times