His record may be hit-and-miss since the 2008 Olympics, and the start to his 100-meter qualifying run was nothing more than ordinary, but Usain Bolt is still the man to beat in Sunday's 100-meter final at the 2012 Olympic Games.
Bolt qualified for the 100-meter semifinals Friday by winning his heat in just over 10 seconds. He stumbled out of the blocks but recovered to win a race that had precious few contenders to deal with. Bolt rode in at 10.09 seconds, while Antiguan Daniel Bailey came in a close second at 10.12.
The semifinals of the 100-meter will take place at 2:45 p.m. ET. The final, scheduled for 4:50 p.m. ET, is still Bolt's to lose.
All four of his closest competitors made it past qualifying with winning runs Saturday: Tyson Gay (USA), Asafa Powell (Jamaica), Justin Gatlin (USA) and Yohan Blake (Jamaica).
Gay, who is coming back from hip surgery, ran his qualifying heat in 10.08. Powell coasted in at 10.04, while Gatlin also finished in 10.08 seconds. Blake, the top contender to keep Bolt off the gold medal stand, won his heat in 10 seconds flat.
American Ryan Bailey was one of the qualifying standouts, finishing his heat in just 9.88 seconds, the top time in qualifying.
But this is still Bolt's race to lose, no matter what you think about his performances the past couple of years.
Bolt was disqualified from the 2010 World Championships for a false start, and Blake knocked him off in both the 100- and 200-meter Jamaican Olympic trials. Once a dominant, almost god-like figure in the sport, Bolt has shown his mortal side.
Even so, the rest of the field knows it will take a once-in-a-lifetime race to steal the gold engraved for Bolt's neck. Gatlin on Bolt, from Howard Frendrich of the Associated Press (via the Atlanta Journal Constitution):
He's the equivalent of the guy walking on the moon for the first time. He's done something that no one has ever done before. You have to line up in the blocks, shoulder-to-shoulder, with this guy? You're going to be in awe sometimes. I think a lot of runners almost have that audience mentality: See what he's going to do, even while you're running. You've got to block that out, go out there and compete against that guy.
Gatlin also told the Daily Telegraph that "the only person that can beat Bolt is Bolt."
In the same report, Gay was very appreciative of the history Bolt has created in the sport. He also knows knocking Bolt off the sport's pedestal in London won't be easy, especially if he's at the top of his game.
"I don't really want to say he's vulnerable," Gay said. "This guy has definitely proved he can run 9.5, 9.6, 9.7. He's the only guy who's been where we haven't been."
Bolt set the world record in the 100 meters at the 2009 World Championships. His time of 9.59 seconds hasn't been touched since. Bolt's Olympic record of 9.69 seconds still stands, too.
But hamstring and back issues have slowed Bolt's training in the lead-up to these Olympic Games, and some have questioned whether he's in the kind of racing form needed to recapture the gold medal he won in Beijing four years ago.
Bolt's stumble out of the blocks to start qualifying Saturday wasn't the greatest of signs, either. To beat the rest of the field, including Blake—who Bolt calls "The Beast"—Bolt needs to be better at the gun.
According to Sports Illustrated's Tim Layden, Bolt didn't seem too worried about his slow start.
Bolt on his 100m jog: ``My reaction [to the gun] was good, but then I made a bad step. I'm feeling back. So I'm happy.''
— Tim Layden (@SITimLayden) August 4, 2012
There is no doubting the competition level of the 100-meter final. Blake has proven time and time again during the last four years that he's a serious contender to beat his fellow countryman.
However, Bolt still has a run or two in him that no one in the world can touch. If that superhuman side shows up, Blake will have to settle for racing for silver. No one is stripping gold off Bolt's neck if he's on in the final.