It was not exactly a leisurely stroll, but Usain Bolt burned little energy in cruising to victory in his heat of the 100 meters Saturday
Bolt even had time to peek at the opposition, which was unnecessary given his lead but an effective bit of gamesmanship as a stacked men’s field set itself up for Sunday’s semifinals and final.
Bolt, the Jamaican who is attempting to become the first man to win three consecutive Olympic gold medals in the 100, finished in 10.07 despite a rough start.
“It wasn’t the best start; it felt kind of sluggish,” Bolt said after his 12:40 p.m. heat. “I’m not used to running this early in the morning in any championships. Hopefully, I’ll feel much better, much smoother.”
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Bolt, the ultimate showman, packed the stadium, and the crowd roared during his warmup when he applauded them. Spectators chanted his name as he spread his arms before walking to the starting blocks.
Justin Gatlin eased to a 10.01 to win his heat and record the fastest time of the round. Bolt’s time was fourth-fastest.
“It felt good — in control,” Gatlin said. “The crowd was great. It’s the culture here to party. It’s excitement. We’re going to bring that to the track.”
Gatlin, a Pensacola native who trains in Orlando under Dennis Mitchell, has the world’s leading time in 2016, the 9.80 he ran at U.S. Olympic Trials.
“I think I’m going to have to run a bit faster to win this medal,” he said.
Bolt, who holds the world record of 9.58, has raced sparingly with a best of 9.88 but says a hamstring injury that forced him to withdraw from the Jamaican national championships is fully healed.
“My right leg is good,” he said.
Bolt, who turns 30 on Aug. 21, is pursuing a triple-triple in his third Olympics. He won six gold medals in 2008 and 2012 in the 100, 200 and 400 relays.
Gatlin, 34, won gold in the 100 at the 2004 Athens Games. After serving suspensions for two doping violations, he’s back in an attempt to become the oldest man to win the Olympic 100. He said he will not be distracted by people who say he doesn’t belong in the Olympics, including U.S. swimmer Lilly King.
“I don’t even know who Lilly King is,” Gatlin said. “I’ve served that time. I’ve dealt with that punishment. I’ve moved forward.”
Bolt will race in the second semifinal at 8 p.m. Sunday and Gatlin the third. The final is scheduled for 9:25 p.m. on NBC.
Among the sprinters who could steal the show is American Trayvon Bromell, 21, second in his heat to Ben Youssef Meite in 10.13 seconds.
“Now I got the jitters out of the way, I’m ready to keep moving forward,” Bromell told NBC. Bromell is a St. Petersburg native who won six NCAA titles at Baylor.
Bolt’s teammate and the 2012 Olympic silver medalist, Yohan Blake, won his heat, as did Canada’s Andre De Grasse, the 2015 world bronze medalist.
“I was a little bit tentative, I didn’t want to false start,” De Grasse told CBC Sports. “I’ve heard [Bolt] is not in the best of shape now, so I feel like this is a good chance for me to take him down.”
Gatlin said he doesn’t like being portrayed as the bad guy because of his past. He maintains the first doping suspension for amphetamines was because he was taking medication for Attention Deficit Disorder. The second one, for excessive testosterone, was the result of sabotage by a massage therapist who rubbed testosterone cream on his buttocks. Gatlin’s coach at that time, Trevor Graham, was subsequently banned from the sport for life because eight of his athletes tested positive for banned substances.
“People want to label and that’s all they want to do,” Gatlin said. “They don’t want to understand the story, in-depth. So many people have come up to me in the Village and the cafeteria, showing me love, wanting me to go out there and do the best, be the best. Taking pictures and everything. I get love, man.”
Gatlin came closest to beating Bolt in last summer’s world championships, when he had the early lead but couldn’t hang on in the last 15 meters and placed second to Bolt by .01 seconds.
American Marvin Bracy was third in his heat and advanced. Jahvid Best, the former Detroit Lions running back representing St. Lucia, clocked 10.39 seconds in Bolt’s heat and didn’t advance. Frenchman Jimmy Vicaut did not advance.