Yohan Blake could land the biggest shock of the 2012 Olympics, as the comet-fast sprinter is offered at 2.4 with the field to beat Usain Bolt in the 100 metres final at the London Games in August.
They could have sold all the seats in the 80,000-capacity London Olympic Stadium 12 times over for the night of the men’s 100 metres final, largely on the pulling power of Bolt, who in just four years has risen to the status of one of the world’s biggest sporting stars.
Yet last August, Bolt’s supreme status at 100 metres was usurped by his younger training partner, Blake, after a blatant false start in the World Championships final in Daegu.
Buoyed with the new-found confidence of being world champion, Blake, 22, finished off last season in electric form, with some breathtaking performances at 100 and 200 metres on the grand prix circuit.
There is no question that Blake now eclipses the American, Tyson Gay, and another top Jamaican sprinter, former world record-holder Asafa Powell, as being the strongest threat to Bolt’s status as the world’s fastest man.
Blake underlined that emphatically this week when he stepped on to the track at Kingston and clocked 9.90sec – the fastest time ever recorded in a sprinter’s first race of a season. “I could have pushed some more towards the end but my coach told me to take it easy tonight,” Blake said. He didn’t really need to rub it in.
Bolt’s start to the 2012 season has been less assured, with his planned debut races postponed at least twice, although the triple Olympic gold medallist’s management have denied that his withdrawal from two meetings in the Caribbean last month was due to any injury.
In the same meeting where Blake raced, Bolt ran the anchor leg of a sprint relay, stopping the clock at 37.82sec, the fastest 4x100m relay clocking of 2012 (though it is so early in the season as to be relatively meaningless).
Blake’s sudden emergence at the top of world sprinting is reminiscent to Bolt’s arrival on the scene four years ago, when he stunned the world with his three world record runs in winning the 100, 200 and 4x100 relay at the Beijing Olympics.
It is worth noting that prior to 2008, Bolt had run the 100 just three times as a senior, and had never broken the 10.0sec barrier.
Part of the reason for Blake’s previous low profile was because of a three-month doping suspension for using a banned stimulant in 2009 – one of a handful of sprinters in the same training group as Bolt who were caught.
Blake and Bolt have not met in a head-to-head race since Daegu, and it just may be that – outside the Jamaican Olympic trials, where they will have to front up against one another – no European meeting promoter will have the budget to pay for the pair to put their reputations on the line before they get to the London Games.
It would be the only form guide worth noting, were such a race to be staged in the month before the Olympics.
Despite Bolt’s two golds in Daegu – defending his 200 and relay titles – there is growing doubts that, although only 25, and despite him talking up the prospect of a seemingly impossible sub-9.50sec clocking in London, the 6ft 5in Jamaican’s best days might already be behind him. Bolt can be backed at 1.5 to win the Olympic 100 metres, which is more generous odds than were available on him before last summer’s Worlds.
A car crash in 2010 and a congenital spinal condition which requires hours of physio work every day were seen to have hampered Bolt in the past couple of summers.
Among the doubters is Maurice Greene, the former world record-holder and 2000 Olympic gold medal-winner. “If everybody competes like they did last year, I'd say Yohan Blake is going to win,” the American said recently.
There was no declaration of interest made, so we have to assume that Bolt’s multi-million-dollar contract with Puma, while Greene works for Adidas, who have Blake under contract, has nothing to do with the judgement.
But the sportswear connection may offer Greene some behind-the-scenes insight into what goes on in the Bolt-Blake training camp. “The way it sounds to me,” Greene said, “Blake seems to be the dominant person in the 100m in their training group.
“Usain has trouble in close races. If you think about the close races he's had, he's lost.
“When they come to the Games, if Usain is still having those problems, Blake's confidence level will be through the roof and he's going to be hard to handle.”
Steven Downes is the author of Usain Bolt: The story of the world’s fastest man, published in November 2011 by SportsBooks Ltd.