NOW IT is Asafa Powell's turn to face the cynics. On the night of June 14, in the Athens Olympic Stadium, Powell, a 22-year-old Jamaican sprinter with a long stride, an upright running style and breathtaking top-end speed, ran the 100 meters in 9.77 seconds, breaking Tim Montgomery's three-year-old world record by .01 of a second. Powell's performance spared track's international governing body the embarrassment of invalidating Montgomery's world record if he is found guilty of doping violations by the Court of Arbitration for Sport in a decision expected next month.
At the same time, Powell's feat thrust him squarely into the same controversy, because any world record in track these days is met with suspicion. "I know people are saying things already," Powell, who has never tested positive for a banned substance, told SI from Jamaica last Friday. "It doesn't matter to me. I know, and my coach [fellow Jamaican Stephen Francis] and my training partners know: I'm not taking anything."
Powell broke the record on the same track on which he finished fifth in the 2004 Olympic 100-meter final after having dominated the European circuit and the Olympic qualifying rounds. Before that final, Jamaican-born 1996 gold medalist Donovan Bailey of Canada said, "It looks like the gold medal is coming home."
Following Powell's defeat, critics whispered that he could run for time but not for medals under championship pressure. That reputation may take yet more victories to dispel. After Powell broke the world record, Justin Gatlin, the 100-meter gold medalist in Athens, told his agent, Renaldo Nehemiah, "Asafa runs well by himself."
At the Olympics, Powell says, "I thought I was too good to lose, and that was my mistake. Now people say I can't win a big race. That's not true. You'll see."
Jamaica has produced dozens of great sprinters, but many leave the island to accept scholarships at U.S. colleges or to compete for other nations (such as Bailey and '92 Olympic 100 gold medalist Linford Christie, who ran for Great Britain). Powell lives and trains in Jamaica. "I would like to make a difference by staying here," he says.
When he returned home from Europe immediately after setting his world record, Powell was met by a large crowd at Norman Manley International Airport, and his phone rang incessantly. He got a message from Bailey and even a congratulatory call from Lance Armstrong, a fellow Nike endorser.
Powell is confident that he can dominate his event. When it is suggested that he could have an exciting rivalry with the 23-year-old Gatlin, Powell says, "I don't think it's going to be that exciting."
The 22-year-old Powell nipped the old mark by .01 of a second.