KINGSTON (Reuters) - Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake will offer the world a tantalizing taste of what may be in store at the London Olympics when the two speedsters go head to head at the Jamaica national athletics championships starting on Thursday.
The showdown between triple Olympic gold medalist Bolt and 100 meters world champion Blake will be the highlight of a four-day meeting as Jamaica selects a sprint team expected to produce some of the biggest fireworks of the London Games.
Kingston’s worn, whitewashed National Stadium will not provide as grand a setting as London’s Olympic venue but the action will be no less explosive this weekend with Bolt, Blake and former 100m world-record holder Asafa Powell pushed by a pack of up-and-coming sprinters under a sizzling Caribbean sun.
While Bolt and Blake are training partners, they have not gone head to head since last year’s world championships in South Korea but cannot avoid each other this week with both men seeing action on all four days alongside nearly 400 other athletes eager to book Olympic places.
For speed junkies the excitement begins with the 100 meter heats on Thursday followed by a Friday final that could feature a lineup worthy of an Olympic final with challengers Mario Forsythe, Nickel Ashmeade, Lerone Clarke and Nesta Carter all having run under 10 seconds. Only three will qualify for London.
The 200 meter heats are on Saturday followed by a mouth-watering final on Sunday to close the meeting that sold out in a matter of hours and has whipped sprint-mad Jamaica into a frenzy.
Soccer’s Reggae Boyz, cricket, even the lovable Winter Olympics tail-enders the Jamaican bobsled team have produced feel-good moments and modest triumphs but it is sprinting that has brought the nation sporting prestige.
The country’s obsession with speed and its unique ability to develop runners who can get from A to B faster than anyone else in the world seems to run counter to Jamaica’s laid-back image.
Sprinting is to Jamaica what ice hockey is to Canada or soccer to Brazil: a source of national pride and a way for young Jamaicans to chase a better life.
Bolt and Blake, who earn millions from endorsements and appearance fees, represent the finish line for thousands of barefoot children, who race along dirt tracks and roads and will fill the National Stadium this weekend to cheer on their heroes.
Bolt, the Olympic champion and world-record holder in both the 100 and 200m, remains the man to beat over both distances even though he surrendered his world crown to Blake last year in Daegu after a false start knocked him out of the final.
Four years after he electrified the Beijing Games with a jaw-dropping display of speed, Bolt is being counted on to deliver that and more in London with an attack on his world record of 9.58 seconds.
Bolt has made more headlines in recent weeks for smashing up his BMW than for breaking records but following a spotty initial buildup to the season he appears to be rounding into form.
He clocked 9.76 seconds over the 100 at the Rome Golden Gala in May, a time only ever bettered by two other men, Powell and American Tyson Gay.
Bolt and Blake are the undisputed headliners but the Jamaican event will not be just a two-man show.
The women’s sprints look intriguing with 100m Olympic champion Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and 200m Beijing gold medalist Veronica Campbell-Brown ready to renew their battle over both distances.
Fraser-Pryce, followed by Sherone Simpson and Kerron Stewart, led a Jamaican sweep of the 100 medals in Beijing while Campbell-Brown will be bidding for a chance to become the first woman to win three straight 200m Olympic titles.
Editing by Clare Fallon