One year from now, the focus of the sports world will be on the 2012 London Summer Games and, by extension, the island nation of Jamaica.
When that country's team marches into the Olympic Stadium, the identity of the flag-bearer won't matter: In every language and on every television around the world, they'll be talking about sprinters. (Do you think Usain Bolt's name will come up?)
There will be no Donovan Bailey or Ben Johnson for Canada in London. Track medal hopes will at most rest with 100-metre hurdlers Perdita Felicien and, possibly, Priscilla Lopes-Schliep.
There will be no repeat of that moment 15 years ago Wednesday, when Bailey crossed the finish line in Atlanta with mouth agape and eyes wide open, a money shot for the cameras and a time of 9.84 seconds worthy of a gold medal and status as the fastest man in the world. It wasn't until 1999 that Maurice Greene broke that record with a 9.79 at a grand prix meet in Athens. Bailey's time stood as the Olympic standard until Bolt broke it in 2008 in Beijing (9.69).
"I still remember having a terrible start and a terrible finish," Bailey said Tuesday, adding with a laugh, "but sprinters are perfectionists. That's the stuff we think about. The mistakes we made."
Since 2006, Bailey splits his time between his hometown of Manchester, Jamaica, and Canada, doing what he can to help his mother, Daisy, cope with illness. So he talks to coaches and sprinters. He goes to meets.
His contention? The Jamaican sprint program has more depth than usual.
How much more? "They have an insurmountable amount of talent coming up," he said.
That depth stretches beyond Asafa Powell and Steve Mullings, who will join Bolt at the world championships in Daegu, South Korea, next month. It goes beyond 25-year-old Nesta Carter, who became the fifth sprinter to go under 9.8 when he clocked 9.78 at a 2010 meet. It goes deeper than the electric Yohan Blake, who, at 22, has just scratched the surface of his potential with 9.89 ("Oh man," Bailey said, "a massively talented kid"), and deeper than 20-year-old Dexter Lee, who is familiar to Canadians from his 10.21-second win in the 100 metres at the world junior athletics championships in Moncton in 2010.
How deep? Think teenagers barely old enough to drive a car.
Jazeel Murphy, 17, ran a 10.27 at the regional CARIFTA Games in Montego Bay, Jamaica, in April, and 16-year-old Odean Skeen has already turned in a 10.41. Murphy missed the world youth championships in July due to a quadriceps injury.
And those are just the men.
"Coaches have gone to the U.S., learned from the best in the world, and realized they can do the same thing at home with the good weather and decent facilities," Bailey said. "What they have in Jamaica that you don't get elsewhere is the hunger for competition that starts at five, six, seven and eight years old. It's like Canadian kids and hockey: The hunger allows you to teach the technical stuff at an early age. Then comes the weight training."
Bolt's best 100-metre time this season, 9.88, was turned in this past weekend at a Diamond League meet in Monaco. He has had a fidgety season, musing publicly about having maybe not worked hard enough when he wasn't visiting doctors for Achilles tendon and back injuries.
In the meantime, serious academics publish studies about the outer limits of human speed in time for the London Games, and 10-time Olympic medalist Carl Lewis, when asked last weekend to pick out an American who can beat Bolt, said: "We always have to think someone will come up.'"
"Look," Bailey said, "all Usain has to do is win races. You get spoiled when a man runs 9.58, but you don't get up and break the world record every day."
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