Is Yohan Blake the man to beat on the track at the London Olympics?
Yohan Blake, 22, bested Usain Bolt in 100 and 200 meters at Jamaican Oly. Trials
Blake, Bolt train together, and while Bolt is laid back, Blake couldn't work harder
The scary part: Blake is still a very raw runner with much room for improvement
There was a moment last month, during Yohan Blake's press conference before the Adidas Grand Prix in New York City, when all of the reporters in the room were confused.
Blake, the 22-year-old Jamaican sprinter who trains with Usain Bolt, repeatedly made oblique reference to "the fastest man in the world." The more questions Blake answered, the less clear it became to whom he was referring. Then, finally, a reporter asked about the upcoming Jamaican Olympic trials, which were just weeks away. "The trials are going to be a cracker," Blake said, invoking the Jamaican lingo for a hotly contested race. "The fastest man in the world is going to be there," he continued, "and also Usain." A tiny gasp rippled through the room. Did Bolt's training partner really just call himself the world's fastest man?
Last year, Blake won the 100 meters at the world championships in Daegu, South Korea. Because Bolt was disqualified after a false start, though, Blake's "world's fastest man" title belt was treated as something of a consolation prize. But three weeks after that press conference in New York, Blake beat Bolt in both the 100 and the 200 at the Jamaican trials. Save for the DQ at worlds, Bolt had won 13 consecutive 100 races, and 15 consecutive 200 finals, dating to September 2007.
Now, while Bolt's "slightly tight hamstring" has dominated track news, there is growing sentiment that Bolt's comparatively below-the-radar training partner may be the man to beat in London.
"[Blake] is the favorite right now, whether Bolt is healthy or not," says Ato Boldon, the four-time Olympic sprint medalist, and NBC track and field commentator.
Blake, at 22, is the same age that Bolt was four years ago when he turned the Beijing Olympics into his personal invincibility tour. And that's just where the similarities begin. Blake, like Bolt, grew up poor in the Jamaican countryside wanting to be a cricketer, until, like Bolt, a school principal saw him run at Jamaica's school "sports day" and steered him to track and field. Blake, like Bolt, first became a local star in Jamaica by winning at "Champs," the Jamaican national high school championship that runs every year before a standing-room-only crowd in Kingston's National Stadium. In 2003, Bolt set Champs records in the 200 (20.25) and the 400 (45.35). In '07, Blake set the Champs 100 record (10.21). Blake, like Bolt, sought out sprint sage Glen Mills after high school. Since joining Mills -- "the guru," as he is known in Jamaica -- "my life has been great, and I've run really well," Blake says.
With the Olympics approaching, Blake seems to have mastered the legendary relaxation of his taller, more famous training partner. The day before his race in New York City, Blake was strolling Park Avenue in red sandals and calf-high rainbow socks.
"Usain showed that you can relax and do funny stuff before the race and it pays off," Blake said that day. "Not thinking about pressure has been working out for me."
But while Blake has adopted some of Bolt's qualities, he has shunned others. In his 2010 autobiography, 9.58: Being the World's Fastest Man, Bolt writes: "I'm so lucky that I'm raw talent. If I really worked at it I could be extremely good indeed, but I never have ... missing gym and training sometimes, and not doing all my workouts. It's hard, man. I don't know how some sportsmen do it."
Blake is one of those sportsmen. He earned the nickname "The Beast" in part for his furious training. "When other people are sleeping, I'm working," says Blake. "Yohan is working even when he's watching TV." When Bolt stays at practice as long as Blake, their coach jokes, says Blake: "Big Man, what you doing here?"
It isn't so much that Blake beat Bolt at the Jamaican trials in the 200 -- Bolt's favorite event and one in which he still holds the world record -- it's the way he beat him.
The trials in Kingston started how races usually have since Beijing: the 6-foot-5 Usain Bolt exploded out of the blocks -- in a manner that only small men did in the pre-Bolt epoch --and was clearly in the lead coming off the turn in the 200 final. It has been a fundamental law of the sprinting universe for the last four years that when Bolt gets out well, the field is racing for second.
But on the straight, Blake ran him down to win in 19.80 seconds to Bolt's 19.83.
"I never, never thought that anyone would be able to run down Usain Bolt in his prime," says Boldon.
Before Bolt became a "speedy cartoon superhero" bent on world domination, the question was always whether he could start well. Short stature is advantageous for acceleration. (Shorter legs have a lower "moment of inertia," essentially less resistance to movement. Thus, historically, world record holders in the 50- and 60-meter events have generally been shorter than those in the 100- and 200-meter races.) But since '08, as long as Bolt did get out well, never has there been reason to question whether he would win. Until last September, that is, when the 5-foot-11 Blake gave a sign of things to come.
At a meet in Brussels last year, Blake ran the 200 in 19.26 -- second only to Bolt's 19.19 in '09 -- but with a reaction time to the gun of 0.269 seconds. (For track dilettantes, 0.269 is abysmal; I have a better reaction time to my alarm clock.) Bolt's reaction time when he ran 19.19, in contrast, was 0.133 seconds. Subtract the reaction time and Blake covered the 200 meters in 18.99 seconds, compared to Bolt's 19.06. And "Blake still does not know how to run the turn," says Boldon.
Blake's Brussels performance was on the strength of a historically unprecedented straightaway. Based on the race video, Blake appears to run in the vicinity of 9.08 seconds for the second 100 meters of the race. Deducting a one-second handicap for the time it takes to accelerate out of the blocks, Blake probably became the first world-class runner to negative split (9.18/9.08, by my watch) his way to a personal best in the 200.
To make the feat even more staggering, Blake -- the subpar curve runner -- did it on perhaps the widest curve in the world. The length of the curve along the inside lane of the track at King Baudouin Stadium in Brussels is 128.8 meters. (The excellent speedendurance.com posted pictures of both Blake's 19.26 and Bolt's 200 win in Beijing in '08, and the difference in curve width is obvious.) So Blake, who was told by his coach to "take it easy on the turn" in Brussels, only had 71.2 meters of straightaway to finish on.
Says Boldon, "When I look at [Blake] on film, he tries to run the turn with straight-line form, and that doesn't work. Nobody taught him how to turn his shoulders going around that turn. It's little stuff, but when your straightaway and turn time have that much disparity, something is clearly wrong."
The track at Olympic Stadium in London has the standard 115.6-meter curve and straights that are 84.4 meters. Expect Bolt to be out hard on the curve, but The Beast -- the world's best finisher -- will be hunting him, and he'll have even more straightaway with which to do it.