- Luke Cyphers
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BEIJING -- He's coming off an injury that had him wondering whether he'd even be here. He hasn't raced in almost six weeks. His competitors hold the two fastest legal times in the history of the 100-meter dash.
The Olympics set up perfectly for Tyson Gay.
The 2007 world champion made an appearance at the Olympic press center Monday, ramping up the anticipation for the 100 showdown this weekend with Jamaica's Asafa Powell and Usain Bolt.
Gay proclaimed himself 100 percent recovered from the left hamstring injury he suffered in early July at the U.S. trials, and he acted like it. He didn't limp, didn't seem nervous and didn't even blink while answering an hour's worth of questions. Except once, when asked who should be considered the favorite: Gay, who owns the fastest wind-aided time in history, 9.68 seconds; Powell, who held the world record of 9.74 until this spring; or Bolt, who beat Gay and broke the record in May with a 9.72.
Gay slumped into his chair. He turned his head. He chewed on his lip. He thought about it a good 10 seconds. Even then, he didn't really answer the question.
"Normally the guy with the fastest time in the world, the world-record holder, he should be the favorite," he said, haltingly. "But I don't mind if people call me the favorite or the underdog."
We'll answer the question for him: Bolt's the favorite. He has that time. He has no injuries. And he has yet to reach his potential. But Gay may be better positioned to win when the four rounds of the 100 start Friday and conclude Saturday.
Immediately after his frightening tumble in a 200-meter heat at the Olympic trials in Eugene, Ore., Gay was easy to write off. The injury to his left hamstring looked bad, and Gay on Sunday revealed his own doubts. "It hurt my confidence," he said. He began erasing those doubts, in his own mind, anyway, two weeks later when he started light jogging and stretching.
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But he's kept the rest of the world guessing about his condition. He rehabbed in Germany from July 11 until he arrived in Beijing last week, and he missed the U.S. track team's training camp. Along the way, he issued statements to the media that he was healing well. Yet, when he had a chance to race in London late last month so he could prove he'd improved, Gay dropped out, saying he didn't want to risk the progress he'd made.
The media wondered whether Gay would show up in Beijing, as Powell and Bolt beat each other up over the summer. Bolt beat Powell at the Jamaican Olympic trials, and Powell returned the favor in Stockholm, Sweden, reminding people that in the 100, Bolt's 6-foot-5 frame can leave him lingering in the blocks.
So although Gay can gauge the Jamaicans, he's denied his rivals a scouting report. That's an advantage.
Now they'll have to assume Gay is close to top form, which means the evenly matched race could come down to experience and mental toughness. And there, Gay has another advantage. Unlike Powell, who admitted he "panicked" last year in losing the 100 final to Gay at last year's world championships in Osaka, Japan, the American performs his best in big races. Unlike Bolt, Gay has been in this situation before.
He made eight rounds of the 100 and 200 in Osaka look easy, but people forget he suffered a minor injury at the national championships last year that put a kink in his training. Gay overcame that, and then some.
Maybe most important is that unlike the Jamaicans, U.S. fans aren't expecting dominance from Gay. They've got Michael Phelps and the men's basketball team for that.
A Gay gold in the 100 would be gravy.
Contrast that with what Bolt and Powell are feeling.
"I saw a guy from Jamaica in the cafeteria who said, 'I hope you don't break up our sweep,' you know, 1-2," Gay said Monday. "I'm pretty sure [Bolt and Powell] are hearing the same thing. Their country wants them to go 1-2."
Meanwhile, Gay is feeling only support, and from unexpected quarters. He saw Kobe Bryant in a gym in the village and asked if he could pose for a picture with him. "And he said, 'How's your leg? I'm going to check you out,'" Gay said. "And that kind of surprised me. I texted my mom right away: 'Kobe Bryant knows about my leg.'"
If there was any way for Gay to turn his misfortune in Eugene into an edge, he's done it.
And how's this for an omen? Gay marched in the Opening Ceremony, which he described as one of the best experiences of his life, and noted that the Olympic torch ignited one minute after midnight on Aug. 9 -- the official start of his 26th birthday.
"The torch was lit," he said. "That was how I celebrated. The next day, I had practice. I didn't get no cake."
Cake can wait. Gay has anticipated these Games since missing the Olympic team in 2004, so the past month and a half has flown. "It's gone a lot faster than I thought," he said.
Don't be surprised if the world is saying the same thing about Tyson Gay's performance Saturday night.
Luke Cyphers is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.