Anticipation is building for the main event of the Rio Olympics, and its two heavyweights are ready to rumble.
Usain Bolt and Justin Gatlin are expected to finish 1-2 in the 100-meter dash on Sunday night. The question is, in what order? Jamaica’s Bolt is pursuing an unprecedented Olympic three-peat in the race that determines the world’s fastest man. Gatlin is pursuing an unprecedented Olympic comeback, 12 years after he won gold at the Athens Games. For the past two years, they have mostly been pursuing each other.
Their friendly rivalry, which mirrors a larger one between the U.S. and Jamaican sprinters, will continue in the 200 and 400 relay and is one of the can’t-miss elements of the second week of the Rio Games, as action moves from pool to track.
“When you think about track and field, you think about Gatlin and Bolt,” Gatlin told NBC. “We are showmen. We are true competitors.”
He compared their races to games played between LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, or Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Bolt, 29, who accumulated six gold medals at the Beijing and London Games, is after a triple-triple in what he says will be his final Olympics. He holds world records of 9.58 in the 100 and 19.19 in the 200. A mild hamstring tear forced him to pull out of Jamaica’s national championships seven weeks ago, but he said he is healed now, as he reassured his parents on social media.
“If I wasn’t ready, I wouldn’t be here because I’m not into the losing thing,” he said.
Bolt’s season-best of 9.88 ranks fourth in the world. Gatlin is No. 1 with the 9.80 he ran at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon.
Gatlin is unpopular among increasingly vocal athletes who believe in zero tolerance for dopers. Four of the five fastest men in history — with the exception of Bolt — have served doping suspensions.
Gatlin, 34, was banned for two years in 2001 for testing positive for a banned substance he said he took for Attention Deficit Disorder. He was kicked out of the sport for life in 2006 when he tested positive for a steroid, but the sentence was reduced to four years on appeal. His then-coach, Trevor Graham, blamed a massage therapist for rubbing testosterone cream on Gatlin’s buttocks. Graham, coach of eight athletes who tested positive for drugs, was banned for life.
Gatlin is now coached in Orlando by Dennis Mitchell, also penalized for doping during his career. But Gatlin steadfastly proclaims his innocence.
“I’ve served that time,” Gatlin said in response to swimmer Lilly King’s assertion that no athlete guilty of doping should be allowed to compete in the Olympics.
Bolt’s performance at the 2008 Beijing Games inspired Gatlin to come back instead of retire.
“I don’t look at myself as an age, I look at myself as a talent, and I’ve got to keep picking out ways to keep being talented,” said Gatlin, who won the bronze at the 2012 Games in London in the fastest 100 race ever.
The key to the 6-5 Bolt’s race is a smooth start. The key for Gatlin is holding his top-end form, which he didn’t do in the last 15 meters of the 2015 world championship, when he lost to Bolt by .01 seconds. Bolt ran a 9.79, the only time he’s gone under 9.8 since 2012.
Other men in the mix include St. Petersburg native and ex-Baylor sprinter Trayvon Bromell, 20, the slim American who has clocked the second-fastest time (9.84) this year; Jimmy Vicaut of France; Bolt’s teammate, Yohan Blake; Andre De Grasse and Aaron Brown of Canada; Jamaican-born Jak Ali Harvey of Turkey; Richard Thompson of Trinidad and Tobago; and former world champion Kim Collins, 40, of St. Kitts and Nevis, running in his fifth Olympics.
The women’s 100 is wide open and any one of six athletes could win gold on Saturday night. Jamaica’s Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce is going for her own three-peat but has been bothered by a lingering toe injury. The three-time world champion was beat at the national meet by Elaine Thompson, the world leader who ran a 10.7 to equal Fraser-Pryce’s national record and climb to fourth on the all-time list. Fraser-Pryce, 29, has only run one sub-11 this year.
Gail Devers was the last American to win Olympic gold in the women’s event 20 years ago. English “Crazy Eyes” Gardener, the New Jersey native and former Oregon Duck who won the U.S. trials in 10.74, is out to change that trend, as is Tori Bowe, the 2015 world bronze medalist, and Tianna Bartoletta, the world long jump champ who was fourth in the 2012 London final and ran a personal-best of 10.78 at the trials. She also qualified for Rio in the long jump.