Bolt, Blake battle brews
TOWARDS the end of 2008, when the world was still reeling from the Lightning Bolt effect at the Beijing Olympics, Usain Bolt was asked on the Morning Time show on Television Jamaica whether there were "any athletes out there who he saw as a potential threat." Without hesitation, the world's fastest man replied: "Watch out for Yohan Blake. He works like a beast. He's there with me step for step in training."
At the time, nobody took much notice. After all, Bolt had just blitzed to his Olympic 100m and 200m gold medals in world record times: 9.69sec and 19.30sec. Blake, four years his junior at 18, had not even made the Jamaican team. His best time for 100m was 10.27sec. His quickest 200m was 20.62sec.
And yet here we are, three years on, with Blake having been installed as the world 100m champion and having clocked a faster 200m time than Bolt recorded in Beijing. As a boy growing up in Bogue Hill, Montego Bay, Blake's dream was to play cricket for West Indies. At 21, he has emerged as a potential nightmare to his training partner and Jamaican national treasure - a serious rival in the sprint game, threatening to knock the Lightning Bolt for six at the London Olympics next summer.
Indeed, Bolt bore the look of a paceman who had just been hooked beyond the boundary rope at Sabina Park as he halted his lap of honour at the Stade Roi Baudouin in Brussels last Friday night (having clocked the fastest 100m time of the year, 9.76sec) to watch the 200m in the Ivo Van Damme Memorial Meeting. Blake's stunning victory in 19.26sec was both an affirmation of his own talent and a gauntlet thrown down to his stable-mate at the Racers Track Club in Kingston.
It was the second fastest half-lap in history, behind Bolt's world record 19.19sec run at the 2009 World Championships in Berlin. "It's shocking that he did so well," Bolt confessed. "I thought he'd run 19.5, but not 19.2."
The jolt for Bolt was that Blake had rarely run the 200m before and had always done so with relative raggedness. Having taken a sluggish 0.269sec to react to the starter's gun and get out of his blocks, the younger Jamaican has room for improvement. As Blake himself reflected: "I can go faster. If I'd run the corner better a world record would have been possible."
Three weeks before that sparkling Diamond League finale to the season, of course, Blake had become the youngest 100m world champion and also the least heralded, his success in Daegu being eclipsed by the drama of Bolt's false start. That was the only race involving the pair in 2011. Bolt has won all five of their encounters: four at 100m, one at 200m.
The frustration now is that we will have to wait until the 2012 season to see how the pair match up in the competitive arena. In the meantime, they will be going through their paces together on the training track at the University of West Indies' Kingston Campus, under the direction of the veteran sprint coach Glen Mills. Imagine Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe preparing side-by side for their double header at the Moscow Olympics in 1980.
Blake, bronze medallist behind the victorious Briton Harry Aikines-Aryeetey at the 2006 World Junior Championships, packed up his bags and left his former training group in Spanish Town to join Mills' sprint stable after watching Bolt's phenomenal feats in Beijing. In his three years with the Racers Track Club, he has overcome the setback of a three-month suspension (after testing positive for a stimulant contained in an energy drink in 2009) and steadily reaped the rewards of his work ethic - to such an extent that his training partner has resolved to stop giving him tips.
Bolt might just need to keep those to himself if he is to retain his Olympic sprint crowns in London.