On June 6, it appeared the men’s 100 meters at the World Championships would not be an open-and-shut case.
Justin Gatlin dealt Usain Bolt defeat that night in Rome, 9.94 seconds to 9.95, a punctuation to Bolt’s crawling pace to start the season.
At the time, Tyson Gay was the world’s fastest man for the year.
Yohan Blake was set to return from a hamstring injury two days later.
Hope floated that the 100-meter final at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium on Aug. 11 could be a four-man race. At the least, somebody could step up to challenge the Jamaican legend. That hope is all but gone now.
Gay, the 2007 world champion and tied as the second fastest man of all time, told The Associated Press on July 14 that he failed a drug test in May. It’s since been reported he failed multiple drug tests this year. He’s out of the World Championships.
Blake, the 2011 world champion and 2012 Olympic silver medalist, continued to be plagued by hamstring problems as spring turned to summer. He pulled out of the World Championships two days after Gay’s drug test came to light.
“After the 2012 Olympics, I was telling people who weren’t into track and field, ‘Hold onto your popcorn because next year is going to be even more exciting. We’re going to have the same people,”‘ Gatlin told the AP. “Never in a million years would I think it would end up like this. I still think it’s going to be exciting.”
Gatlin followed up his 9.94 in Rome with a pair of 9.89s (one legal, one wind-aided) at the National Championships on June 21 and a 9.94 into a slight headwind in Monaco on July 19.
Bolt lowered his season’s best to 9.94 at the Jamaican National Championships on June 21 and then to 9.85 at the London Anniversary Games on July 26. Only Gay has run faster than 9.85 this year, and those times look like they could be erased.
Now, 9.85 is a mortal time for Bolt, the six-time Olympic gold medalist whose world record from the 2009 World Championships is 9.58. It’s also an attainable time for Gatlin. The American bettered it three times last year, including a 9.79 in the Olympic final that earned a bronze medal, eight years removed from his Olympic gold and two years into his comeback from a doping suspension.
“Do I see him as a threat?” Bolt told Sport magazine. “I see everybody beside me as a threat.”
But the prevailing theory is that Bolt is capable of much faster than 9.85 come Sunday’s final. That Gatlin is not. Bolt has proven to post average times (for him) in the spring and early summer and then turn it on for major championships.
“I want to be like Michael Jordan and the other greats,” Bolt said in Moscow, according to multiple outlets. “I want to set myself higher than the rest because I want to be among the greatest of all time and be discussed as someone great like Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali and Pele.
“I want to be among these guys, and if I want to be that I have to keep pushing myself regardless of who I am facing so that when I retire I’ll be remembered among the greatest sportsmen.”
In 2009, Bolt entered the World Championships with a season’s best of 9.79. He ran 9.58 to win the world title.
In 2011, Bolt entered the World Championships with a season’s best of 9.88. He was disqualified in the final of the World Championships for a false start, but he came back to run a 9.76 in September.
In 2012, Bolt came into the Olympics with a season’s best of 9.76. He won his second straight Olympic 100-meter gold in 9.63.
To give Gatlin credit, the gap between silver and bronze in Moscow might be even greater. After Bolt and Gatlin, two other men from the 2012 Olympic final are entered in Moscow. Neither Churandy Martina nor Richard Thompson have bettered 10 seconds this year.
The favorites for bronze start with Jamaican Nesta Carter, a longtime member of the nation’s 4×100 relay team who has struggled to overcome Bolt, Powell or Blake to qualify for individual events. Carter has run sub-10 five times this year, including a 9.87, and he’s the fifth fastest man of all time.
But his two major meet appearances in the 100 were failures. He didn’t make it out of the semifinals at the 2007 World Championships and jogged the final 10 meters for a 10.95 in 2011.
He didn’t even make the Jamaican team at trials, taking fourth, but got in when Blake withdrew.
Brit James Dasaolu came out of nowhere to clock a 9.91 in July. It made him the second fastest Brit ever, only trailing 1992 Olympic champion Linford Christie. There’s a lot of mystery about Dasaolu, given his personal best before this year was 10.09, and he hasn’t run since that 9.91.
Frenchmen Jimmy Vicaut and Christophe Lemaitre and American Mike Rodgers are also in the hunt.
Preliminary Round (Bolt has a bye): Saturday, 2:10 a.m. ET
Heats (Bolt’s debut): Saturday, 12:15 p.m. ET
Semifinals: Sunday, 11:05 a.m. ET
Final: Sunday, 1:50 p.m. ET