Can anyone stop Bolt? Only, maybe, if you get into his head
BEIJING -- Usain Bolt is looking at us with his index finger pressed to his lips, asking us to keep his secret.
He's creeping up behind his friend and fellow sprinter Wallace Spearmon, who is talking to us media types after Tuesday's 200-meter semifinals at National Stadium. Spearmon is chatting away, completely unaware that Bolt is preparing to pour a chilly blue Powerade down his back.
At the request of the world's fastest man, we sold out Spearmon and kept quiet.
"Aaahhhhh!" was roughly Spearmon's outburst while Bolt danced happily away. When the American found out it was a sticky energy drink and not just water, he was doubly peeved.
Someone noted to Spearmon that his Jamaican friend doesn't seem terribly nervous heading into the Wednesday final of the 200.
"Pfffft," was roughly Spearmon's reply. "Would you be? If I ran a 9.6 shutting down, I wouldn't be nervous, either."
It was a 9.69 the other night in the 100-meter dash, not a flat 9.6 -- but big deal. Spearmon certainly got the shutting down part right -- Bolt was almost high-kicking like a Rockette in the final strides Saturday night.
So the question for Wednesday night isn't so much whether Bolt will win, becoming the first 100-200 double gold medalist since Carl Lewis in 1984. It's whether he can sufficiently resist showboating to take aim at the oldest sprint record in the books: Michael Johnson's electrifying 19.32 at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
"I'm going to run my heart out," Bolt proclaimed.
Let's hope so, just for the sporting sake of going after Johnson's record. Bolt would have to hack .36 seconds off his personal best to make history yet again -- no small amount in a sport in which every hundredth counts. But if you saw his shocking 100, you won't discount his chances.
"I don't put anything past him now," Spearmon said.
No human seems capable of getting past the lightning Bolt, not here and not now.
After again preening and clowning for the camera before the race, he qualified fastest for the final Tuesday night without showing any appreciable effort. Flanked by Americans Spearmon and Shawn Crawford, Bolt loped to the finish in 20.09 seconds. He disputed the term "jogging" -- but he still came closer to spraining a sweat than breaking one.
Bolt is 6-foot-5, so his races often resemble Randy Moss running fly patterns against smaller cornerbacks -- he's gliding past while they're visibly straining to keep up. At 5-11, Crawford would fit that cornerback bill -- and he doesn't appear to like it.
The 2004 gold medalist in this event, Crawford sneered at reporters hoping to talk to him after the semifinals. Teammate Walter Dix, who won bronze in the 100 and wore his sunglasses on top of his head to the medals stand, also walked by wordlessly. Stay classy, boys.
Crawford and Dix might be Bolt's prime competitors in the 200, but they displayed none of their rival's jaunty confidence.
"I like to enjoy what I do," Bolt said. "You can't be too serious."
The only thing serious about the Jamaicans is the beating they administered to the American sprinters -- men and women -- here in the 100s. The Jamaicans now could reprise their gold-medal sweep in the 200s, with their women posting three of the top five qualifying times and Bolt leading the way on the men's side.
"They're looking pretty strong right now," said Spearmon, who will be the third American in the eight-man final.
Still, nothing is guaranteed. We saw the evidence of that Tuesday night at the track, where American gold-medal favorites Lolo Jones and Sanya Richards both blew races in the late stages after they held large leads. Even Michael Phelps had to work down to the smallest unit of time to win one of his eight gold medals.
The key to upsetting Bolt, according to sprint veteran Kim Collins of St. Kitts and Nevis, is not trying to keep up with his unmatchable stride. He suggests aiming higher.
"Get in his head," Collins said.
Bolt is young enough (he will turn 22 on Thursday) and inexperienced enough (first Olympics) that there might be a means of rattling him. It's not a new tactic in track, especially the sprints.
"It can be done, it has been done and it will continue to happen," Collins said.
Despite saying that, Collins sounds like a guy who is expecting a Bolt double. He's less sure about Bolt's breaking Johnson's record, predicting a winning time in the 19.4 to 19.5 range.
"You have to have somebody you need to catch," Collins said. "He needs a good rabbit on the outside to get that time."
Rabbit or not, Usain Bolt might well be racing more against the ghost of Michael Johnson than against those seven warm bodies that will surround him in the starting blocks Wednesday night.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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