Tyson Gay's photo-finish, 100-meter loss to training partner Steve Mullings of Jamaica last Saturday at the Adidas Grand Prix in New York City was scarcely significant—a cold, wet, early-season race sullied by the disqualification of three runners for false starts. Both Gay and the ascendant Mullings, who tested positive for steroids in 2004 and served a two-year suspension, were timed in a glacial 10.26 seconds into a stiff, frigid headwind on the kind of afternoon on which sprinters are just looking to escape the proceedings uninjured.
Gay had run a surprisingly fast (and best in the world this year) 9.79 in a low-key race in Clermont, Fla., on June 4. (Mullings, whose pre-2011 best was 10.01, ran 9.80 at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Ore., the same day.) Still, Gay came to New York with a sore right hip and modest expectations. "I'm 75 percent," he said during race week. He was sloppy in the loss, standing up out of the blocks, spotting Mullings five meters and then throwing technique out the window in a scalded-cat comeback that came up an inch short. Even then he probably would have won the race had he not leaned into the finish line a beat early.
"I was sluggish and I was rusty," Gay said after the race, rubbing his hip and awaiting a rubdown from his physical therapist. "This was my first real heat-of-battle race. We haven't been aggressive in practice for a few weeks [because of the hip issue], and that carried over into the race. I could tell I was sluggish even during the false starts. I just wasn't getting out."
Yet everything Gay does for the next 14 months is framed against the backdrop of his pursuit of Olympic gold medalist, world champion, double world-record holder and speedy cartoon superhero Usain Bolt of Jamaica at this summer's world championships in Daegu, South Korea, and at the 2012 Olympics in London.
It has been that way since 2008, when Bolt suddenly transformed the 100 and 200 meters in one fabulous spring and summer. That change began in earnest when he dusted Gay and set a world record of 9.72 at the same Icahn Stadium in which Gay was beaten last week. Bolt's 100 record now stands at 9.58, set in the 2009 worlds in Berlin; his 200 mark is 19.19 from that same meet. Gay is the second-fastest 100-meter man in history, at 9.69, and the third-fastest at 200 with a 19.58. "We don't talk about Bolt every day in practice," says Gay's longtime coach, Lance Brauman, "but I'm sure Tyson thinks about him."
There are two ways for Gay to catch Bolt. One is for Gay to run significantly faster, because the .11 seconds that separate their PRs in the 100 meters is a country mile in world-class sprinting. Gay has tweaked his training to improve, running all-out in practice less frequently and trying to save his best (and most punishing) efforts for races. (Peers have dubbed him One Speed, because he seldom backs off, even in practice.) Gay is not planning to run the 200 at the U.S. national championships on June 23--26 in Eugene, and thus he won't be in the event at the worlds. Yet he is quick to grant that beating Bolt at Bolt's best will take "a perfect race." Gay's 9.69, in the late summer of 2009, was "terrible," says the native Kentuckian. "I basically popped straight up out of the blocks and ran for my life." (Much like on Saturday in New York.) The counterintuitive reality of the Gay-Bolt rivalry is that the 6'5" Bolt has beaten Gay out of the blocks and not crushed him at their top end speed.
The second possibility for Gay is that Bolt simply never runs 9.58 or 19.19 again. Says Ato Boldon, Olympic medalist and now NBC analyst, "After Michael Johnson ran 19.32 [for 200 meters at the 1996 Olympics], we all got discouraged because we figured we won't run 19.32. My coach [John Smith] said, 'Neither will he.'" Whether that's true in the long run is conjecture; but it might be true for 2011. Bolt has run two 100-meter races this year, winning both in pedestrian (for him) 9.91s, and also a 200 last week in Oslo, which he won in a modest 19.86. Bolt shut down his 2010 campaign in August with a back injury, and it's likely that injury slowed his preparations for this year.
It's also frequently overlooked that Gay and Bolt have met just one since Bolt's beatdown at the 2009 worlds, and Gay won that race last summer against a compromised Bolt. In fact, Gay overlooks it too. "He's the world-record holder, the Olympic champion and the world champion," says Gay. "At the end of the day I can't just beat him in some race. I have to beat him on the big stage." Last weekend was a small stage. Much more significant battles lie ahead for both men.
Still in the Picture