Two days before the last time Usain Bolt raced in New York, seven years ago when he owned zero Olympic medals, the Jamaican sat next to the reigning World 100m champion Tyson Gay at a Manhattan press conference while the reigning Olympic 100m champion Justin Gatlin spent the day across the city, in a court room.
On May 31, 2008, Bolt was to race in a top-level 100m for the fifth time in his career, according to The New York Times, against Gay, then the top threat to become the third straight U.S. man to win Olympic 100m gold in Beijing later that summer.
Gatlin, too, had flown to New York, for a hearing in front of the Court of Arbitration for Sport. He hoped to have a four-year ban for testing positive for testosterone in 2006 lessened so he could compete at the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials and try to defend his title in Beijing.
In New York, Bolt would break the 100m world record for the first time at the 2008 Reebok Grand Prix, clocking 9.72 seconds on a wet track.
“That’s when I really blew up,” Bolt said Thursday, according to Reuters. “Everybody around the world started to watch.”
One month later, a judge denied Gatlin’s bid to compete at the U.S. Olympic Trials, where Gay crashed to the Hayward Field track and was wheeled off of it in the 200m quarterfinals with a left hamstring injury. Then in August 2008, Gay failed to reach the Beijing Olympic 100m final while Bolt broke the world record again.
Gatlin again won’t be racing in New York, but his presence will be felt. He was the fastest man in the world in 2014 and is so far again this year, five years removed from that four-year doping ban.
Gatlin registered 9.74 seconds in the 100m this year, the fastest time in the world since 2012. He has also recorded 19.68 in the 200m twice in the last 11 months, the fastest time in the world since Bolt captured the 2013 World Championship.
On Saturday, Bolt will line up in a 200m and be measured more against Gatlin’s 19.68 than by any times from the sprinters in the lanes surrounding him.
Bolt raced a total of 400m in competition last year, a season shortened due to foot surgery that March, and clocked 20.13 in chilly rain in Ostrava, Czech Republic, on May 26.
“I’m not in the best of shape,” Bolt told media in New York on Thursday night.
With one year before his stated final Olympics, Bolt’s sprint supremacy is under its greatest threat since he became the 100m king in this city seven years ago.
Here are the Adidas Grand Prix start lists. Here’s the schedule (all times Eastern):
9:40 a.m. — Men’s javelin
10 — Women’s long jump
10:55 — Women’s discus
11:40 — Women’s pole vault
11:50 — Women’s high jump
12:18 — Women’s 100m
12:25 — Men’s 400m
1:04 — Men’s 400m hurdles
1:13 — Women’s 3000m steeplechase
1:25 — Men’s triple jump
1:31 — Women’s 400m
1:37 — Men’s 5000m
1:45 — Men’s shot put
1:58 — Women’s 100m hurdles
2:06 — Women’s 200m
2:16 — Men’s 100m
2:25 — Men’s 800m
2:36 — Men’s 110m hurdles
2:45 — Men’s 800m
2:54 — Men’s 200m
3:20 — Women’s 1000m
Five events to watch:
Women’s pole vault (11:40)
Olympic champion Jenn Suhr was upset by Brazil’s Fabiana Murer at this meet one year ago. But Suhr ought to be the favorite Saturday, given she cleared 4.81m on May 24, the best in the world since 2013.
Brazil’s top track and field athlete Murer returns, as does Olympic silver medalist Yarisley Silva of Cuba. Suhr’s longtime rival Yelena Isinbayeva of Russia is not in New York, having said in September she planned to sit out 2015 after having a baby girl last June.
Men’s triple jump (1:25)
Cuban Pedro Pablo Pichardo figures to romp, given he jumped 18.08m to become No. 3 in the event all time earlier this year and has jumped 17.94m or better four times in 2015. Olympic champion Christian Taylor is not in New York, but Olympic silver medalist Will Claye is, bringing a 17.38m season’s best.
Perhaps the most intriguing story is former New York Giants running back David Wilson, whose eyes are set on qualifying for the U.S. Championships in his first track meet in four years. Wilson must jump 16.30m or better to assure a berth in Nationals in two weeks.
Men’s 100m (2:16)
Gay will look to cement his status as favorite in the 100m at the U.S. Championships in two weeks (since Gatlin has a bye into the World Championships as reigning Diamond League champion, he doesn’t have to race the 100m at Nationals).
Gay’s competition leaves plenty to be desired. While the American ran 9.88 at the Prefontaine Classic on May 30, nobody else lined up for Saturday’s sprint has bettered 9.98 this season. Gay’s expected top rivals at the U.S. Championships where the top three make Worlds individually — Ryan Bailey, Marvin Bracy, Trayvon Bromell and Mike Rodgers — are not in New York.
Men’s 800m (2:45)
Olympic champion David Rudisha will race for the first time since he pulled a right thigh muscle in Ostrava on May 26. The Kenyan world-record holder went more than one year between races in 2013 and 2014 due to a knee injury noticed while running in Central Park.
Rudisha, 26, now looks up at Ethiopian World champion Mohammed Aman, Djibouti’s Ayanleh Souleiman and Botswana’s Nijel Amos, all at least four years younger than Rudisha. None of them are in New York, where the Kenyan’s challenge could come from U.S. 1500m stars Leo Manzano and Matthew Centrowitz.
Men’s 200m (2:54)
Bolt’s competition is a little stronger than Gay’s, despite the loss of Olympic bronze medalist and World silver medalist Warren Weir, who was on the original start list. Bolt could be tested by Panama’s Alonso Edward, who took silver behind Bolt’s world record at the 2009 World Championships and ran 19.84 last year.
Remember, Bolt ran 20.13 in chilly, rainy Ostrava on May 26 in his only 200m since 2013.