We’re always looking for the next one.
Proven stars sell tickets and generate headlines, but there’s a reason why ratings for the NFL draft are so high, why National Signing Day crashes the servers of every recruiting website across the Internet and why baseball and soccer franchises comb over the globe for talented 10-year-olds to groom into future pros.
In track and field, where no-names become household names in fractions of a second, it’s easy to jump the gun on hyping a new superstar.
Such has been the case with Yohan Blake, the 21-year-old who made his name with three blazing performances this summer. Blake won the 100-meter dash gold medal at the World Championships, added another gold as part of Jamaica’s world record-setting 4x100 relay team, and a couple of weeks later clocked 19.26 seconds in the 200 at a meet in Belgium—the second fastest time in history.
Looking ahead to 2012—particularly the Summer Olympics in London—there are many (including my B/R colleague Red Shannon) who believe Blake will be the world’s preeminent sprinter for the foreseeable future.
Too bad that future, as well as the present, still belongs to Usain Bolt.
Despite winning his own WC gold medal in the 200 (in 19.40 seconds, fourth-fastest in history) and anchoring that record-setting relay (37.04 seconds), Bolt’s enduring legacy this year was the false start that earned him a disqualification in the 100-meter WC final that Blake eventually won.
For the casual fan who only remembers the DQ, and the informed fan who remembers Bolt performing at less than his dominant best throughout 2011, the perception may be that the 25-year-old Bolt is in decline.
Even if that were true, consider the peak from which Bolt would be declining. He’s the man who has set the 100-meter world record three times and the 200-meter record twice in the past three years. He’s the man who looks like he’s jogging while breaking time barriers that champions like Linford Christie and Maurice Greene never could.
If Bolt is in decline, he’s merely leaving one faraway solar system and falling closer to our own.
Before this year’s WC, when the only debate over Bolt was whether he’d set another world record or two in Daegu, my thought was that Bolt wouldn’t be at the top of his game without (for him) a perceived threat in the field. Tyson Gay was out, Asafa Powell was out and Blake had not yet proven himself on the big stage. Bolt would win—I was sure of that—but he probably wouldn’t make history for a sixth and seventh time.
More than likely, he would do what he usually does when he runs against his friends that he treats like little brothers: Blow them away early, coast down the stretch and laugh along the way.
Blake has now given Bolt another reason to be serious.
It’s too early to declare him a favorite to beat Bolt, but he has moved up to the exclusive class of sprinters who can give Bolt motivation to run his fastest. He’s given Bolt a reason to work on improving his explosion out of the starting blocks, to avoid slacking on his technique on the curve, to train harder and smarter for next year.
For now, that will have to be good enough.