In this article, I go head-to-head with track and field writer Austin L. Burton, who will try to convince you that Usain Bolt (and not Yohan Blake) will emerge as the dominant sprinter in 2012. You can read Burton's piece right here.
Usain Bolt is a big man who casts a mighty big shadow. Many men have felt the chill of that shade—probably none more intimately than Bolt's protege, countryman and training partner, Yohan Blake.
But in Brussels recently, when Blake covered the 200-meters in the second-fastest time ever (19.26), he emerged full-face into his own little spot in the sun. Among the stunned spectators was Bolt himself—understanding immediately that Blake's race, fast as it was, left plenty of room for improvement.
Blake had a dreadful start, with a reaction time of .269—over a quarter-second from the sound of the gun to his delayed explosion from the blocks. By comparison, Walter Dix,who finished second in a remarkable 19.53, had a better (yet still mediocre) reaction time of .185. This means if Blake had even matched Dix's luke-warm start, he would have theoretically finished in 19.18, eclipsing Bolt's once-pristine 19.19 world record.
And this does not take into account Blake's less-than-stellar negotiation of the turn section of the race, from out in lane seven.
What we witnessed in this race was raw top-end speed overcoming questionable technique. Scary speed, when one considers what the application of a little more coaching might produce.
But beyond pure speed, there is another commodity possessed by Blake which will certainly give him an edge in the Olympic year of 2012: the kid is fearless. Watch recent clips of Blake's eventual victory in that 100m final at the World Championships—both before and after Bolt's false start. He was undaunted by the venue, the occasion, or the assembled field.
And in an event which is started and finished in mere seconds, a healthy dose of confidence can be a real difference-maker.
Blake seems impervious to intimidation. This was most apparent following the 200m victory in Brussels. As Bolt congratulated his compatriot, Blake's body language spoke loud and clear:
"I'm casting my own shadow now. Don't block the light."
Bolt indeed has slipped from his once-lofty perch as a sprint deity. Injury and less-than-optimum conditioning since his pinnacle year of 2009 have exposed his vulnerability. Though still the premier sprinter in the world, Bolt may find himself in the unfamiliar position of having to look over his shoulder in 2012. And where doubt exists, an opening exists.
But how can we discuss Bolt and Blake without including a healthy Tyson Gay in the mix? Gay was out of the limelight most of 2011, finally choosing to waive the season for hip surgery. Gay is, after all, the second-fastest man ever over 100-meters (9.69) and arguably the greatest turn runner (in the 200m) on the track today.
But Gay has his own challenges. He trains and runs with such ferocity his body is constantly at risk of literally tearing itself apart.
In 2012, I look for Bolt and Gay to begin their gravitation toward the 200-meters. For Bolt, it's a matter of returning to his natural distance—and first love. For Gay, it's a matter of survival—the half-lapper is more methodical but less punishing physically. And guess who will be waiting for them there, with the fastest time (by far) in the last two years—and with the most upside—and the most to gain?
Who will be the dominant sprinter in 2012?
Yohan Blake, with a little more refinement, should help make the 200-meter dash a featured attraction once again.
And how about the 100 meters? Bolt, in spite of his world-leading 9.76 this year, has shown a tendency to relax a bit in the "off years" since 2009—almost seeming bored—unless it's a major global championship. Can he simply turn it on at will in 2012, like a light switch? In Stockholm, 2010, Gay proved the answer to that question is not necessarily in the affirmative.
Gay himself will have to craft and follow a precise plan—almost from square one after his surgery—to regain his 2010 form, avoid injury, and reach his peak in London.
Meanwhile, Blake, who appears to be healthy and hungry, is already riding a wave of momentum which could carry him through next summer as the man to beat. And you can bet the ghost of that empty lane, which will forever taint his world 100m title in Daegu, is all the motivation he'll need.
That, and the impetus of staying out of those chilly shadows.