LONDON (Reuters) - From Thomas Burke’s 12-second run to win the first race in 1896 to Usain Bolt’s stunning 9.69 dance in 2008, the men’s 100 meters final has always been the jewel in the crown - not just of athletics but of the entire Olympic Games.
It is the hottest ticket every four years and the most-watched 10 seconds of action in the sporting world, with TV audience claims of billions for once probably not exaggerated.
Run on grass, cinders, rubber and the current near-carpeted surface, the race has evolved technically and tactically.
The scowling steroid-fuelled muscle men of the 1980s and 90s, who ripped their shirts off to display their torsos like prize fighters, have been replaced by sleeker performers led by the lithe-limbed Bolt who prefer to laugh and joke on the start line.
Whatever the approach, however, the race remains at heart what is has always been since man first stood on two legs - the purest and most basic test of sporting endeavor.
In its Olympic form the race has soared to astonishing heights and plumbed depressing depths, sometimes, in the shape of Ben Johnson’s drug-assisted win in 1988, in the same moment.
Other races have their admirers, particularly among athletics aficionados who appreciate the combination of strength, speed, endurance and tactics needed to succeed at the longer distances.
But for pure, explosive, edge-of-the-seat theatre, nothing can match the sprint.
World records come and go and a world champion’s currency is devalued by that competition’s biennial frequency, so it is the Olympic champion who revels in the symbolic title of the “fastest man in the world”.
It becomes indisputable if a world record and Olympic gold medal arrive simultaneously, though that supreme confluence has happened only three times - four if Johnson’s subsequently annulled 9.79 in 1988 is included.
The London final is the most eagerly awaited for years and is already being billed as potentially the greatest of all time, with the possibility of all eight runners dipping under 10 seconds and Jamaican Bolt’s 9.58 world record under threat.
Bolt goes into the race hoping to become the first man to cross the line first in successive 100 meters finals. Carl Lewis, who won in 1984, was awarded the 1988 race after Johnson’s doping disqualification and is the only man to have taken two golds in the event.
Now, having run even faster at the Berlin world championships in 2009 for his 9.58 world record, Bolt is back seeking to make himself a “legend” and maybe even dip under 9.5.
That assumes, of course, that he is fully fit, which he was not when beaten by his training partner Yohan Blake in the 100m and 200m in the Jamaican trials a month ago.
Bolt had back and related hamstring problems which required stretching and massage and, though he insists he is fully fit, he has been training behind closed doors.
Nobody will really know what shape he is in probably until the 100m semi-finals a few hours before the final on August 5.
“I went and I trained, I had slight problems but nothing too serious, I got that fixed and I’ve been training great,” he said last week.
“I keep telling you guys, it’s all about the championships, it’s not about the trials, it’s not about one run, every athlete knows this. I‘m ready to go.”
Those defeats, however, and his disqualification after a false start in last year’s world championship final won by Blake, have given his rivals just the merest sense of a chink in the great man’s armor.
Trying to take advantage of that at 20.50 GMT on August 5 are likely to be Blake, with a best of 9.75, American Tyson Gay, the second fastest-man in the world at 9.69, former world record holder Asafa Powell (9.72), a rejuvenated Justin Gatlin, the drug-banned 2004 champion with a legal best of 9.80 and an annulled best of 9.77) and a host of other sub-10 second runners.
Mark the date.
Editing by Matt Falloon