The highest point of my career in sports was seeing Ben Johnson take on Carl Lewis in what was touted as the Race of The Century at Seoul in 1988.
For about a quarter of a century since, nothing has quite matched the thrill and melodrama of watching those two great sprinters— and bitter rivals— compete for an Olympic gold.
That time-held memory is now under serious threat from what promises to be the greatest sprint race off all time when starter Alan Bell’s gun goes off at 9.50 pm Sunday night (London time) at the main stadium.
Incidentally, Bell was also the starter when Usain Bolt had a false start in the World Championship September last and was sensationally disqualified from the race. He has promised to behave himself after that and has pretty much lived up to his word.
Unless something goes haywire in the semis a couple of hours earlier, here’s what the line-up could read like for the final: Usain Bolt, Aasafa Powell, Yohann Blake, Tyson Gay, Justin Gatlin, Ryan Bailey, Dwain Chambers all of whom won their heats on Saturday afternoon.
Has there ever been a better assembly of sprinters in history? Seoul had, apart from Lewis and Johnson, also Linford Christie, Calvin Smith, and Dennis Mitchell. But even this magnificent array would pale in comparison to the current lot.
For instance, Bolt is not just the fastest man in the world with the 9.58 sec World Record to his credit, but also a maverick, and a superstar. He makes limericks and jokes about his own prowess and the failings of his opponents, a la Muhammad Ali. His appeal cuts across continents, and he has filled up stadiums wherever he has gone.
Bolt is of course favorite despite a couple of setbacks recently, but must beware of competition. There is young Yohan Blake, his training partner and crown prince who could use the London Games to announce himself king.
Gay, Gatlin and Powell were swept aside when Usain arrived like a bolt from the blue (pun intended). But on a given day, they can steal the scene – and the gold medal. There is also the home grown challenge of Chambers who has returned from a ban for drug usage and is out to redeem himself.
Some indication of what lies in store came on Saturday afternoon when the heats were held. The Olympic stadium exploded with a massive roar when Usain Bolt swaggered inside to validate his qualification, and every heat thereafter built up the excitement further for today’s final.
You could say Bolt strolled through those 100 m winning in 10.09 seconds but he still managed to make the competition look inadequate. In fact, his 10.09 sec was the slowest in the heats— Bailey was quickest at 9.88— but it was clear that the major runners were conserving energy for the morrow. It is likely that all finalists could finish under 9.9 secs!
What is considered the pinnacle of human sport is over in the blink of an eye. Yet nothing else can boast as much of the power and glory of an athlete or the Olympics.
Tickets for Sunday have been priced at a whopping 725 pounds sterling each (approx. Rs 65000) for the day— and none are available. The biggest global audience for any sporting event is expected to witness this race, which promises to be like none before.
It is scheduled for 9:50 pm London time, which for Indian viewers means the unearthly 2:20 am. But what the hell, the best things in life don’t come without some hardship.
My recommendation is to fight away the sleep. And keep the bladder in control at zero hour!