Pressure in an Olympic year
The London Olympics in August are still a distance away, so it would be premature to draw hard conclusions on the basis of form this early in the international track season.
Nonetheless, the evidence suggests that the anticipated duels in the men's and women's sprints could very well come to pass.
World record holder and Olympic champion Mr Usain Bolt set the stage a week ago with his 9.82 run at the JN Jamaica International Invitational in Kingston. His clubmate and World 100m champion Mr Yohan Blake, who clocked a world leading 19.91 seconds over 200m in Kingston, went to the Cayman Islands a few days later to clock 9.84 seconds over 100 metres. We dare not forget that at the UTech Classic in mid-April Mr Blake had stopped the clock at 9.90 seconds.
And yesterday in Doha, American Mr Justin Gatlin, who is on the comeback trail after a four-year doping ban, ran as if his life depended on it to catch and beat Jamaica's former world record holder Mr Asafa Powell at the line. Mr Gatlin clocked 9.87 seconds, Mr Powell 9.88 seconds, and Jamaican Mr Lerone Clarke third in 9.99 seconds.
Considering that not so long ago a 10-second clocking was a major achievement, it is worthy of note that with the international track and field season having just started there have already been seven sub-10 times in the men's 100 metres.
The women sprinters have also caught the eye. As was the case last year, Ms Carmelita Jeter of the United States is in spanking form, outclassing the field to defend her 100m title at the JN meet in Kingston.
Another great American, Ms Allyson Felix — better known for her exploits over 200 and 400 metres — set down her marker in the 100m in Doha yesterday with a time of 10.91 seconds, relegating Jamaica's 200m and 100m Olympic champions Ms Veronica Campbell-Brown and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce to second and third respectively.
After the extraordinary sprinting successes of the last four years, Jamaicans in this their 50th anniversary year remain hungry for even greater glory in London come August. The clear early season message from the Americans is that they are bent on sharing in, if not spoiling, the Jamaican party.
An abiding concern for Jamaicans will be the form of the much-loved, but fragile, Mr Powell, in the run-up to the National Championships (trials) in late June.
As has happened before, Mr Powell's on-again, off-again approach to participation in the JN meet in Kingston suggested an absence of proper forward planning, thought and focus on the part of his camp. In the end, Mr Powell pulled out of the 200m in order, he said, to guard against exacerbating a groin problem which has been with him for years. As the experts point out, running the curve in the 200m brings additional pressure on the groin area.
The situation begs the question: given the information available to Mr Powell and his handlers, why enter the 200m in Kingston in the first place? From a purely psychological point of view the inevitable negative speculation following his withdrawal would have done him no good.
Also, concerns about Mr Powell's ability to respond to pressure in competition came again to the forefront yesterday in his loss to Mr Gatlin. For Mr Powell appeared to have had the race won, only to lose his form as Mr Gatlin closed.
The thought may be distasteful for many track fans, the truth though is that come the National Championships in late June, Mr Powell, more than any other of Jamaica's big name sprinters, will be under extreme pressure to hold his nerve and earn an individual lane at the Olympics. We wish him well, as indeed we do for all our athletes, in what will be for some, the most important season of their lives.