Seven years ago, Usain Bolt went to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing with a world record in the 100m, but no major senior title to his name.
Bolt lit up the Bird’s Nest Stadium with world record victories in the 100m and 200m and shared a third gold medal with his Jamaican teammates in the 4x100m relay.
The Jamaican returns to Beijing for the IAAF World Championships facing a subtly different question. “Can Bolt climb the mountain?” has become: “Can he stay at the top?”
Bolt repeated his double in world record times at the 2009 World Championships in Berlin. Since 2008, the only global sprint title that has not come the Jamaican’s way was the 100m in Daegu in 2011 when he was disqualified for a false start.
Of 10 individual world and Olympic titles available to him since 2008, he has won nine.
The past two years have seen injury bring Bolt back to the field. His participation in Beijing looked in doubt until two 9.87-second runs over 100m at a cold and rainy IAAF Diamond League meeting in London on 25 July.
Bolt will need to be on his game to win in Beijing. Justin Gatlin, his predecessor as Olympic champion, is unbeaten with no fewer than four wins in the 9.7-range to his credit this year. Two other long-time rivals – Asafa Powell and Tyson Gay – are also prominent on the world list.
If Bolt, Gatlin, Powell and Gay can be styled the ‘older’ generation, Jimmy Vicaut and Nickel Ashmeade could be the middle-age group.
Vicaut recently equalled the European record in running 9.86 behind Powell at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Paris while Ashmeade was runner-up to Powell at the Jamaican Championships. The Jamaican team is completed by reigning world bronze medallist Nesta Carter, a late replacement for the injured Kemar Bailey-Cole.
Trinidad and Tobago’s Keston Bledman is another established sprinter in form, equalling his career-best of 9.86 this year.
Which brings us to the younger generation who might make their presence felt in Beijing.
Foremost among this group is 20-year-old Canadian Andre De Grasse, a late convert from basketball to athletics. De Grasse ran wind-assisted times of 9.75 and 19.58 in winning the NCAA 100m and 200m titles this year and followed up with a 10.05 and 19.88 double at the Pan American Games, all of which suggests his legal best of 9.95 may be under-estimating his potential.
Trayvon Brommell finished second to Gay at the US Championships, and has a wind-assisted 9.76 to his name this year. A disqualification for a false start in Monaco ruined his senior international debut but his potential is obviously great. Britain’s Chijindu Ujah ran 9.96 behind Bolt in London.
Finally, Su Bingtian – who turns 26 on 29 August and so may not strictly belong in the ‘young’ group – is a newly minted member of the sub-10-second club, having run 9.99 at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Eugene earlier in the year. No doubt he will receive passionate support inside the Bird’s Nest.
But can anyone find more motivation to perform in the 2008 Olympic stadium than Usain Bolt? That is the question.
Len Johnson for the IAAF