As Usain Bolt churned down the Olympic track, his main rival was trying to get in front of a TV monitor to catch a quick glimpse of the race. Justin Gatlin missed the Jamaican’s first-round heat. That’s OK, the American sprinter has seen plenty of Bolt to know exactly what to expect. Bolt is a huge favorite to win an unprecedented third straight Olympic title in the 100 meters on Sunday. And that’s despite pulling out of the Jamaican trials last month because of a sore hamstring and wishing he had more races coming into Rio de Janeiro.
It certainly hasn’t changed his focus.
“It’s always to win. That’s what I’m here for,” said Bolt, who was 3-for-3 in races at the 2008 Beijing Games and again four years later in London. “That’s what I’m going for. My focus is to go out there and do my best, and execute well.”
Bolt posted the fourth-fastest time in the first round (10.07 seconds), with Gatlin leading the way (10.01).
Lately, Gatlin is the only one who’s been remotely close to keeping up to Bolt. He nearly beat Bolt during the 100 final at the world championships in Beijing last August, but faltered at the end. The 34-year-old Gatlin was neck-and-neck with the Jamaican, but over-strided with about 15 meters left and went into his lean too early. That paved the way for Bolt to capture gold.
A mistake Gatlin took to heart.
“A win or a loss _ they’re all lessons you learn to become a stronger athlete, a stronger human, the next time around,” Gatlin said.
With his doping past, Gatlin has been portrayed as the villain in his rivalry with Bolt, which has become track’s version of “Good vs. Evil.” He doesn’t care what anyone thinks.
“I’ve worked hard like everybody else,” Gatlin said. “I get tested like everyone else. I’m back here. I believe in the system. I hope everybody else believes in the system, too.”
Knocking off Bolt is a tall order. Asked how a sprinter upsets Bolt, veteran Churandy Martina of the Netherlands pondered his response for a moment.
“To beat Bolt? Oh,” said Martina, who didn’t make it out of the first round. “Once he’s in a tight position, he might tense up. But you never know, because he always shows up at the right time and the right moment, which is these games.”
Here are some others _ besides Gatlin _ who can interrupt Bolt’s run at greatness:
YOHAN BLAKE: Bolt’s teammate is rounding into shape after dealing with hamstring and leg injuries in recent seasons. Blake finished runner-up to Bolt in both the 100 and 200 at the 2012 London Games.
ANDRE DE GRASSE: The 21-year-old Canadian went to Southern Cal and split the bronze medal at the 2015 world championships with American sprinter Trayvon Bromell.
BROMELL: His career was nearly over before it even got to the starting line. He severely injured his left knee on a back flip gone wrong in eighth grade, damaged the right knee while grabbing a rebound during a basketball tournament in ninth grade and cracked his hip in a 100-meter race as a sophomore. He was all set to give it up, before his mom convinced him to keep going. A fruitful decision. He turned pro last fall after two NCAA titles at Baylor, hired the same agent as Bolt and signed a shoe deal with New Balance.
XIE ZHENYE: The 22-year-old from China was a world youth champion at 200 meters in 2012. He ran the second leg on the Chinese team that captured the silver at the worlds last year in Beijing.
BEN YOUSSEF MEITE: The 29-year-old from Ivory Coast is a dark horse. He did have the second-fastest time in the first round (10.03).