It took just 41 strides over 9.87sec for Usain Bolt to shout to the world what his camp have been quietly whispering all summer: the Jamaican is back and ready to slug it out mano a mano with Justin Gatlin at next month’s world championships in Beijing.
Bolt had to grind and come from way down the field to beat Michael Rodgers in a thrilling 100m final by just 0.03sec. Such was the quality of the field that three other men also dipped under 10 seconds – including Kemar Bailey-Cole, who set a personal best of 9.92, Britain’s CJ Ujah, who equalled his PB in 9.96, and the Frenchman Jimmy Vicaut, who ran 9.98.
Yet all eyes, inevitably, were on Bolt, who ran 9.87 in both his heat and the final. But the really staggering thing about his performances was that there was still obvious room for improvement. His start was slow – even now, after so many years and so many drills, he leaves the blocks like a man getting out of his favourite easy chair – and in the semi-finals at least he also slowed down before crossing the line. Yet he still managed become the sixth fastest man in the world this year.
As Bolt admitted afterwards: “In the final I got a bad start and when I did, my old habits kind of chipped in and I lost focus and my form. I just need to remember that, even if I get a bad start, I need to focus on the work and get it done. After the heats I was expecting anything really. I knew I could have gone faster if I executed well. My coach said relax and let it flow but the final was shitty. I really wanted to run faster but it’s getting there.”
Remember, however, that the weather could not have been less conducive to elite-level sprinting. The rain, which had begun to hammer down in the morning, was soon slobbered over the paths to the Olympic Stadium and on the track. Indeed, the conditions were so bad that the pole vault was pushed back until Saturday.
The temperature was barely in the teens. And a sharp easterly wind blew in the athletes’ faces. The calendar said July, the body November. Yet Bolt responded with his fastest 100m time in a season disrupted by injury.
If Gatlin, who has run the four fastest 100m times in the world this year, was thinking that he could stroll to a gold medal in Beijing this performance would have given him a sharp slap in the face.
And Bolt left with a warning for Gatlin. When asked if the performance meant he could now be considered fastest man in the world again he flashed his teeth. “I was never number two, I am still number one, so that’s the plan until I retire.”
Ujah can be rightly proud of his efforts too. The 21-year-old went off the boil after running 9.96 in Hengelo last summer but his performance under pressure undoubtedly leaves him as Britain’s best sprinter, particularly given that Adam Gemili is injured.
“My coach told me to be calm and collected and I knew I just had to run the model race,” he said. “It was amazing to race Bolt but you can’t focus too much on that. At this level you are here for a purpose but it is a great inspiration to run against him – he’s a legend. I wasn’t nervous before but I’m running with a lot more freedom now.
“It’s crazy to run in front of my home crowd,” he added. “I just want to build on this ahead of Beijing. This was my first time running in the stadium so this is all quite new to me – the atmosphere was electric.”
Zharnel Hughes provided another high-class British performance with victory in the men’s 200m as he set a personal best of 20.05sec to hold off Dedric Hughes and Anaso Jobodwana. The 20-year-old, who transferred from the British colony of Anguilla earlier this summer, is now the third fastest Briton in history behind John Regis and Gemili and he believes he can go faster.
“I didn’t expect the PB because last week I had a niggle in my hamstring,” Hughes admitted. “I was just thinking relax and get to the line. You never know what can happen in Beijing but I’m going to try and go sub-20 seconds.”
Bolt’s performances rewarded the 40,000 crowd, some of whom had spent over an hour queuing to get into the Olympic Stadium. When the action got under way at 7pm the stadium was only a third full and there were reports of a huge queue going all the way out of the park as well as children crying because they were unable to get tickets. One fan, Craig Williams from Coventry, said: “None of the stewards knew what was going on. Everyone was being directed to the main ticket office to collect tickets and there were thousands of people getting increasingly angry as the event had already started.”
But a British Athletics spokeswoman insisted that they had done their best. “A number of spectators had extended queuing times at ticket collection due to a substantial increase in walk-up purchasers,” she said.
“Extra resource was put in place to process the queues with the majority in their seats by the start of the main Diamond League programme at 8pm.”