The Big Man came flying, all alone, blue running track in front of him and his problems behind him. First there had been an embarrassing false start in the 100 meters and then a sensational comeback gold in the 200. Finally, on Sunday night on the anchor leg of the 4 √ó 100-meter relay, the final event of the 13th world track and field championships in Daegu, South Korea, Usain Bolt snatched the stick from his Jamaican teammate, Yohan Blake, and set sail for the finish, 100 meters away.
Think of the worlds as a graduate course in Olympic preparation. They are where athletes gather in the year before the Games to study for the work that lies ahead. They are Olympics Lite, with medals awarded, flags raised, anthems played and gallons of blood drawn for drug testing. And while a world championship is a title to be treasured, it is a little bit like winning the AFC and losing in the Super Bowl. No, I never won an Olympic gold medal, but you should have seen me in Daegu back in '11. ... The worlds are where plans are formulated and lessons learned.
One lesson from Daegu was that doubling up on events can enable fame, or endanger it, as U.S. sprinters Carmelita Jeter and Allyson Felix discovered. Another was that some 2012 gold medals are already spoken for. Like the one for Kenyan 800-meter runner David Rudisha, whose silky gait looks as if it were manufactured in a stride factory. "His skill set is not like anything we've seen," says former 800-meter world-record holder and two-time Olympic 1,500-meter gold medalist Sebastian Coe of Great Britain. "He has no holes in his game."
Or the one for Australian 100-meter hurdler Sally Pearson. She hasn't lost a race since August 2010 and last Saturday night won the Deagu gold medal in 12.28 seconds, which made her the fourth-fastest woman in history and the fastest in 19 years. "I knew that my body was in shape," said Pearson after the race last Saturday night. "So I let it do the talking, and it wanted to run fast."
But at the core of this year's worlds were two distinct track meets: the one in which Bolt became Bolt again and the one in which Team USA, led by sprinters Jeter and Felix, showed that it can still devour a medal table.
First Bolt. He is not simply the biggest name in track and field; he is the only name in track and field for all but hard-core fans, famous as much for what he does just before the gun as after it (the long, choreographed routine: slicking his eyebrows, shooting the lightning bolt pose, tossing off martial arts moves and, in Daegu, flashing a hand gesture from the movie Too Fast Too Furious). "He's the guy who makes average people watch track and field just to say they saw him," says NBC analyst and four-time Olympic sprint medalist Ato Boldon. "And he is the only guy in the sport like that."
People barely saw him at all on Aug. 28, when he was disqualified from the 100 meters for the most famous false start in the sport's history. He was angry and petulant on that night, but four days later he returned to the track in the opening round of the 200 meters and said, simply and contritely, "It was my fault."
There was more at work with Bolt than one brainlock. He had not been sharp since shortly after breaking his own world records in the 100 (9.58 seconds) and 200 (19.19) meters at the 2009 worlds, and he shut down his 2010 season in August with a back injury that delayed his training for '11. He hadn't run faster than 9.88 for 100 meters or 19.86 for 200 this year, and that makes his performance in the 200 in Daegu even more remarkable.
A cautious Bolt sat in his blocks (his gun-reaction time of .193 of a second was the slowest in the field) but then ran down Walter Dix of the U.S. before leaving the curve. "I tried to beat him on the curve, and I didn't do it," Dix said after the race. "And then I couldn't catch him." Once on the straight, Bolt gradually drew away. He began grimacing 50 meters from the finish, baring his teeth and hacking at the warm air with his long fingers, before crossing the line in 19.40 seconds, the fourth-fastest time in history. (He now has three of the top four; Michael Johnson of the U.S. has the other). "It wasn't a perfect start, and it wasn't perfect technique at the finish," Bolt said afterward. "But I ran as hard as I possibly could. I'm proud of myself."
Now, less than 24 hours later, he opened up in the homestretch of the relay. Behind him, U.S. third leg Darvis (Doc) Patton lay sprawled on the track after colliding with massive Great Britain anchor Harry Aikines-Aryeetey, making it the third consecutive time that the U.S. has failed to complete the 4 √ó 100 in a global championship (2008 Olympics, '09 worlds, '11 worlds; Patton has been involved in all three miscues), the latest in a litany of U.S. relay problems that date back more than two decades.
Far away now, Bolt tore across the surface of the track in his custom Pumas, which he wears for one race and one race only and then gives to charity. He is normally Jamaica's third leg, but customary anchor Asafa Powell missed the worlds with a groin injury. "I kept looking at the clock," he would say after the race. "I kept saying, I can do this, I can do this." And at the finish the clock froze on 37.04 seconds, breaking the world record of 37.10, which Jamaica (and Bolt) set at the Olympics in Beijing. It was the first world record of the meet, achieved in the final event.
Team USA's work was less spectacular than Bolt's (what isn't?) but historically significant nonetheless. U.S. athletes won 12 gold medals (two short of their alltime high, in 2005 and '07) and 25 overall (one short of the U.S. record, set in 1991 and matched in 2007). U.S. women won a record six golds. Most significantly, the medals stretched across generations.
There was the old: Dwight Phillips, 33, who won his fourth world long jump championship in his 11th year as a professional (to go with a 2004 Olympic gold medal). "I've never had a real job," said Phillips. "I feel blessed to have this career." And there was the young: Christian Taylor, 21, who on Sunday evening won the triple jump with a leap of 58'11¼" inches, third-best ever for an American, behind Kenny Harrison in 1996 and Willie Banks in 1985. The slender, 6'2", 175-pound Taylor recently turned professional after three years competing for Florida and trains with Phillips and coach Rana Reider outside Atlanta.
There was the old: Lashinda Demus, 28, the mother of four-year-old twin sons, won the 400-meter hurdles last Thursday night in an American-record time of 52.47 seconds, the third-fastest in history. There was the young: Matt Centrowitz, 21, a rising senior at Oregon, who ran a patient, professional 1,500 meters. He closed in 51.6 seconds—"Fifty-one six, that's ridiculous," Centrowitz said afterward—to win bronze in an event U.S. runners adore but have struggled to contest (other than Kenyan expatriate Bernard Lagat).
But the most intriguing U.S. subplot emerging from the worlds is the potential rivalry between California sprinters Jeter and Felix, whose collective range reaches from the 100 meters to the 400 and includes both relays. (Between them they won seven medals, which would have tied them for fifth in the country standings.) Daegu was Jeter's breakthrough meet; after taking bronze medals in the 100 at both the '07 and '09 worlds (and failing to qualify for the '08 Olympic team), Jeter, 31, won the 100 on the first weekend of the meet and then last Friday held off Felix for silver behind Veronica Campbell-Brown of Jamaica in the 200.
Jeter has risen relatively late in her career. She was 27 in the spring of 2007, when she walked into the breakfast room of an athletes' hotel at a meet in Eugene, Ore. "She was sitting alone, so I invited her to sit with us," says Larry Wade, a former world-class hurdler who had begun working as a coach. "A month later she called and asked me to coach her." Wade helped Jeter make the '07 worlds team, and he could see that there was serious potential. "She had great top-end speed," says Wade, now the coach at Pasadena City College. "She just needed to learn to relax and use it."
In 2009 Jeter switched from Wade to John Smith, who had coached Wade, as well as numerous Olympic and world champions. (Wade said Jeter told him that the change was compelled by Nike, her shoe company sponsor.) Wade helped Jeter get her personal best from well over 11 seconds to 10.97; Smith has taken her to 10.64. Some observers of the sport are uncomfortable that Wade served a two-year suspension after testing positive for steroids in 2004, and that Smith has had several of his athletes test positive for banned substances. (There is no evidence that Smith was involved in providing drugs, and Jeter has never failed a test.)
After Jeter's impressive work in Daegu, she vowed to double in 2012. Meanwhile Felix, a three-time world champion and two-time Olympic silver medalist in the 200 meters, challenged herself by running both the grueling 400 and the 200 in Daegu. She came away with no individual gold medals, taking silver in the 400 (.03 behind Amantle Montsho of Botswana) and bronze in the 200 (.05 behind Jeter and .20 behind Campbell-Brown), although she won gold in both relays (with Jeter on the 4 √ó 100 on Sunday) to give her a career total of 10 world championship medals, second only to Merlene Ottey, who won 14 medals for Jamaica.
After the 200, Felix said with little reservation that she will run only that event in London. "I feel like this was the year to try something," she said. "Next year I'm going to be more focused on the 200. I'm not so sure about the double, because that 200 is very important to me."
But the next day her coach, Bobby Kersee (who coached his wife, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, to three Olympic gold medals), said, "Everything in track and field takes two years. This was our first year [of training for the double]." He said that Felix lost the 400 not because she wasn't fit enough to win, but because she waited too long to kick. And she lost the 200 because they neglected raw-speed training to prepare for the 400.
"Next year, come June," said Kersee, "we'll be ready to run [the U.S. Olympic Trials] in the 100, the 200 or the 400."
On Sunday night Felix said, "Yeah, we had a conversation. We're going to talk some more, but you know where my heart is." One way or another, one event or two, it's on the way to London with everybody else's.
U.S. ATHLETES WON 25 MEDALS, ONE SHORT OF THEIR RECORD. MORE SIGNIFICANTLY, THE MEDALS STRETCHED ACROSS GENERATIONS.
While old pro Dwight Phillips (above) showed the form that won him a gold medal at the 2004 Games, a quartet of twentysomething U.S. athletes—none of whom have ever medaled at the Olympics—sent notice that they'll be forces next summer in London.
Jennifer Barringer Simpson
Photographs by BOB MARTIN
WINNING FORM Jeter (opposite) struck a pose after winning gold in the women's 100, just as Bolt (right) did in anchoring Jamaica's world-record run in the 4 √ó 100 relay.
Photographs by BOB MARTIN