After worries over his participation at next month’s Rio Olympics following a hamstring tear suffered at the Jamaican national trials just two weeks ago, it was announced on Monday that Usain Bolt will defend both his Olympic 100m and 200m titles – and the 4x100m relay title – in Brazil after being named in the 63-strong Jamaican team.
The 6-time Olympic gold medallist and 100m and 200m world record holder was one of four athletes to be given a medical exemption to make the Jamaican squad, despite not featuring in the sprint finals due to his injury. But whilst the 29-year-old might be primed to feature on the track, the prospect of Bolt retaining his long established dominance of the sprint events is not such a sure thing.
In any elite athletic endeavour, not just track and field, speed is notoriously the first physical attribute to wane (unless your name is Justin Gatlin). The average age of Olympic 100m personal bests throughout history stands at 25.4 years. Bolt will be 30 next month, just fifteen days after the men’s 100m final. Bolt’s world record of 9.58 seconds was set as a 22-year-old man at the World Championships in 2009 and he hasn’t come close to his personal best since the 2012 London Olympics, when, as a 25-year-old, he ran 9.63.
It’s also no secret that recovery time from injury becomes more prolonged as athletes age. So a month before his 30th birthday, suffering a hamstring tear, can Bolt really recuperate to record an Olympic winning time?
They are valid concerns for the charismatic track legend, and that’s before we even look at the rest of the field…
Bolt’s rival in chief is none other than the aforementioned Gatlin, the American drug cheat who returning as a clean athlete mysteriously recorded a personal best of 9.74 secs at the age of 33. Make of that what you will. Last year, at the World Championships in Beijing, Gatlin was hotly-tipped to beat an out-of-form Bolt in what was billed as a battle of ‘good versus evil’ in the sport’s glamour event. The Jamaican came through however to win in 9.79 seconds, ending a 28-race unbeaten run for Gatlin.
Yet with the hamstring tear, Bolt’s build up to Rio is even more troubled than last year whilst the Indian summer of Gatlin’s year continues. Last week the now 34-year-old recorded 2016’s fastest time to date, running 9.80 at the US trials in Oregon.
Incredibly, it seems as though Gatlin is even more of a threat to Bolt than he was last year. And returning from injury, Bolt can only be a weaker force.
Bolt’s national rival and relay teammate Yohan Blake will head into Rio as Jamaica’s national champion after he won the 100 and 200m finals in the Olympic champion’s absence. The 26-year-old (the joint second fastest man in history tied with Tyson Gay’s 100m PB of 9.69) is more experienced than in previous championships when he played second fiddle to Bolt, yet still in the midst of his physical prime, and will also be a legitimate threat.
And then there is the new blood. Turning 21 last Sunday, American Trayvon Bromell – who became the fastest teenager in history last June running 9.84 and later ran 9.92 to claim bronze in Beijing – came second in the US trials behind Gatlin, equalling his personal best. In Rio he will be the same age as Bolt was when he first shocked the athletics world in 2008 and will also provide a serious challenge to the great man, though it is more likely we’ll truly see the best of Bromell in 2020.
He may be the exception to the sprinting age rule, but currently Gatlin should be seen as the favourite to take Bolt’s Olympic 100m crown in Rio de Janeiro. In the process he would become the oldest man in history to claim the coveted title.