Steve Cram: track giants Usain Bolt and Asafa Powell ready for psychological warfare in Rome
The Telegraph - UK |By Steve Cram |7:00AM BST 31 May 2012
In Olympic year everything changes: even the bread and butter takes on a different flavour.
Take Thursday night's Diamond League meeting in Rome. The whole point of the Diamond League was to create juicy, television-friendly head-to-heads between the big guys. But in an Olympic year, the big guys have to be careful.
Normally they’d go to a meet like Rome thinking: yeah, I’ll go for the prize money and if I don’t get it, well there’s always next month. But with only a few weeks to go before London, you can’t accept coming third or fourth, you can’t afford to give your opponents the confidence boost of beating you.
Then again, of course, if you don’t show up your rivals are thinking: hold up, he’s scared of me.
Kenenisa Bekele is a prime example of the conundrum these kind of meets throw up. He was meant to be going to Eugene to race Mo Farah. Now he’s not. If you’re Mo you thinking: he doesn’t want to race me yet; he’s running scared. What a boost that will be to his preparations.
In Rome, though, enough of the big guns will be firing for us to get a decent idea of where their preparations are. Dai Greene, for instance. For me his attendance is a big sign of his confidence. Especially as this is his first significant outing of the season. Most British athletes would have had a couple of lesser runs first.
Now he’s world champion, however, Dai operates at the very top; frankly there’s no point in him running in Loughborough.
Sure, he’s taking a risk; if he doesn’t run well, there’s not that many weeks until Games. But he is a very level-headed guy. He’ll be confident he can start well, blast everyone away, then allow himself the chance to ease off.
He can race fast, he has all the physical equipment, but when he comes up against Bolt, Tyson Gay or Justin Gatlin, something doesn’t quite click.
The bottom line is he’s not a great competitor. It’s about what’s between his ears; he’s a lovely looking runner who tightens up in competition.
As for Bolt himself, well he just had the worst run of his professional life the other day in Ostrava. But he has always saved his best for the big occasion.
From juniors, his opponents have always known when the chips are down he’ll win. Yes, he had a false start at the World Championships in Daegu, but he’s so very good at peaking at the right time, mentally and physically. What happens this weekend is no indication of what will happen in August.
Among the women, I’ll be intrigued to see how Caster Semenya runs. Undoubtedly she has struggled with all the attention that came her way after her 800m win in the worlds in Berlin in 2009, when she went from being an unknown country kid thinking she was just there to run, into a maelstrom. It hit her hard.
She effectively was obliged to take a year out to regroup and it was a bit much to expect her to be super fast on her return.
The South Africans have an early season in March and April and she did OK, looked pretty good. But I thought she looked a bit heavy.
Because of her physiology, because of how masculine she is, if she keeps putting muscle on, she’ll just bulk up and not get faster. Her coach has to be careful. She reminds me a bit of Tom McKean, he was a muscly 800m runner and frankly he was carrying that much he couldn’t run more than 820 metres.
Plus all four British relay teams will be in action in Rome, trying to get the baton round and register a time to qualify for the Games. I don’t think we should read too much into who lines up. I suspect Dwain Chambers will be in there in the men's 4 x 100.
There’s nothing in his performances that suggest he should be; in Ostrava, where Bolt appeared to be going backwards, Chambers was still a mile behind. But he’s always good box office so they’ll probably put him in.
There has been a lot of money spent on preparing for relays, but I haven’t seen lots of evidence of material benefit. I accept there’s an art to it.
But, like penalty taking, getting the baton round is very different in practice than in competition. Obviously in terms of flat out speed we’re nowhere near Jamaica or the US in combined individual times. But it is solely about the baton.
Predicting what happens in the relay is like trying to predict what will happen at the end of next season’s Premier League: silly. I think we have a chance to do OK come August. But then, I always think Sunderland are going to do OK.