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TRACK AND FIELD

Tyson Gay heads to the starting blocks against Usain Bolt

The American is the world champion at 100 and 200 meters. His Jamaican competitor wowed Olympic crowds in those events. This weekend, they race in Berlin.

August 14, 2009|Philip Hersh

BERLIN — The ads being used in German print media to promote ticket sales for the 12th World Track & Field Championships leave no doubt about the main event of the nine-day meet that begins Saturday.

"Das Duell uber 100m in Berlin," the ads say, the message next to a picture of the two men expected to duel in Sunday's 100-meter final at the 1936 Olympic Stadium: reigning world 100- and 200-meter champion Tyson Gay of the United States and reigning Olympic 100-200 champion Usain Bolt of Jamaica.

"People love to see showdowns," Bolt said.

In the 14 months since the New York race where Bolt broke the 100 world record for the first time, leaving Gay a thoroughly beaten runner-up, the men have kept their distance.

The closest they have been to each other in the race that certifies the world's fastest man was successive semifinal heats at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, when an injury-slowed Gay failed to make the final that would turn Bolt into a global sports icon.

That will change Saturday when they are scheduled to run in preliminary heats of the 100 over the same track.

The world-record time of 9.69 seconds Bolt ran to win Olympic gold, which could have been a few hundredths faster had he not played to the crowd in the final 15 meters, and the jaw-dropping world record of 19.30 Bolt ran in the Olympic 200 might seem to render as so much hype the idea of duels with Gay in Berlin.

Gay's fastest 100 time is 9.77; in the 200, it is 19.58. So the weapons in this duel would look like an automatic pistol against a submachine gun were it not for Gay, despite a nagging groin injury, thinking he has a shot to eclipse both those world-leading personal bests this season.

"I don't believe he is way, way better than me," Gay said. "I believe I have a chance of beating Usain Bolt."

Gay has run slightly faster than Bolt -- 9.79 and 19.59 -- in a 2009 season when the Jamaican's training has been affected by both the post-Olympic glory circuit and an April 29 car accident that left him with cut feet.

"I've been to so many places, so many functions," Bolt said at a recent one in Toronto, where he accepted the Laureus world sportsman of the year award. "Every time you miss a couple days, it's almost like you are starting from scratch again.

"I definitely need to follow up with a great season, and I'm working on that."

Gay was starting from scratch barely a month before the 2008 Olympics because he collapsed to the track with a hamstring injury in the 200 quarterfinals of the U.S. Olympic trials. His training limited by the injury, Gay was both upset and relieved by his elimination in the semifinals of the Olympic 100.

"Seeing what Bolt did, I knew if I had made the finals in the shape I was in I would have been embarrassed," Gay said.

The last time Gay beat Bolt, when they finished 1-2 in the 200 final at the 2007 world championships, the Jamaican was not yet concentrating on the 100, having run only one before 2008.

Few thought Bolt, at 6 feet 5, would be able to uncoil his body from the starting blocks efficiently enough to be a world-beater in the 100. Yet he broke the world record with a 9.72 in the fifth 100 of his career, leaving rivals such as Gay in awe-struck admiration.

"Sometimes you just say a guy is a freak or super-talented," Gay said. "He has the start of a 5-9 guy and the stride length of a 6-5 guy. He changed the game."

The 5-11 Gay is not bothered by going into these world championships as a clear underdog. He was in a similar situation two years ago, when Jamaica's Asafa Powell held the world record in the 100 at 9.77, yet Gay left the perennially underachieving Powell a dispirited third in the 2007 world final.

Asked last month what headline he would write after the Berlin 100, Gay replied, "Tyson Gay shocks the world."

Just to hear that from the usually understated Gay is a shock. A few seconds later, Gay also said he appreciated being asked to share the promotional spotlight with Bolt.

"It means a lot that people haven't forgotten me and that they compare me as even close to him," Gay said.

The photos of the two in the advertisement also illustrate their differences. Gay, 27, has a dead-serious expression; Bolt, 22, is opening his arms to celebrate the 100-meter victory in Beijing.

"We're two different people who run similar times," Gay said. "Some people say I'm boring, or I need to loosen up some. This is how I am, and how I am always going to be."

Bolt has developed an elaborate, crowd-pleasing pantomime, striking poses as a lightning bolt, a flying bird, or a boxer punching the air, shimmying to the beat of a Jamaican dance called "Nuh linga."

"If you want to just run and walk off the track, that's fine," Gay said. "If you have someone who can dance and entertain and run fast, it's good for the sport."

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phersh@tribune.com

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