PARIS - The doping-tarnished world of athletics needed a boost at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and duly received a massive one from Jamaican sprint star Usain Bolt, who changed the face of track and field as we know it. The good news for organisers of next month's London Games is that the ebullient 25-year-old remains in tip-top form and professes himself desperate to defend his double sprint gold medal-showing from four years ago.
But he will have a battle on his hands, having recently been pipped in both the 100 and 200m in the Jamaican Olympic trials by training partner Yohan Blake, crowned world champion in Daegu last year after Bolt sensationally false started in the final. Bolt truly revolutionised athletics with his performances in a captivated Bird's Nest stadium in the Chinese capital, setting then-world records in both the 100 and 200m and also going on to claim a third gold as part of Jamaica's WR-setting 4x100m relay team. He went on to replicate his three golds in the 2009 world championships in Berlin, remarkably setting the current world records of 9.58 and 19.19sec in the 100 and 200m respectively.
"I am the Olympic champion and I have to show the world I am the best," Bolt said after his double losses in the trials to Blake. "I will always make a comeback. It is not like I was blown away. I know what I need to do to get it right."
Blake said he had not been shocked by recording a rare double defeat of Bolt.
"I have been working hard and am seeing it paying off now," Blake said. "I was not surprised by the big win. I know what Bolt has to offer and I know he was not at 100 percent. I just tried to keep my form."
Contenders for the blue riband event of the 100m will come from another Jamaican in the shape of Asafa Powell and the American duo of Tyson Gay and Justin Gatlin, the 2004 Olympic 100m champion barred from defending his title in Beijing after being banned for doping offences.
Gay, who has committed to racing just the 100m come London, has made a slow start to the season, but came through the US trials alongside Gatlin, the latter insisting they were ready to face the Jamaican challenge.
"We all have our eyes on that prize we want to get at the end," Gatlin said. "If there are three Jamaicans we have to get out of the way, that will be our goal." But athletics is not all about one man and his roadshow, although meeting organisers and the general public may beg to differ...
Track and field will be held from August 3-12, the last 10 days of the Games, at the newly-built Olympic Stadium, with an estimated 2,000 athletes competing in 47 events. The men will compete in 24 events and the women in 23, with the latter's schedule lacking the gruelling 50km race walk. The US team suffered one of its worst showings in Olympics history but still finished atop the gold medal standings in Beijing thanks to its men's 4x400m relay squad winning the penultimate race of the competition. The Americans finished with seven golds, nine silvers and seven bronzes for a total of 23. Russia came second with 18 medals (six gold, five silver, seven bronze and Jamaica third with six golds, three silvers and two bronzes.
Kenya bumped up their medal count to 14 (5-5-4) with gold medal-winning performances in the men's 800m and women's 1500m, and the late Samuel Wanjiru claiming the men's marathon title. The US team, always happy to make their "minority" sport centre stage, will again be strong, with incredible strength in depth in the sprints and hurdles. On the track it remains to be seen how the Ethiopian duo of Kenenisa Bekele and Tirunesh Dibaba shape up against a formidable-looking Kenyan middle and long-distance team led by 800m world record holder David Rudisha. The two multi-medal-winning long-distance runners claimed the men and women's 5000m and 10,000m doubles within a day of each other.
But Bekele is battling to regain his form after a two-year-long battle with an achilles tendon problem, and has so far looked off the pace. Dibaba, meanwhile, won in the 5000m at the New York Diamond League but will have her work cut out against stand-out Kenyan Vivian Cheruiyot, who claimed an impressive 5000-10,000m double at the world championships in Daegu.