Asafa Powell is the athletics world’s equivalent of the stealth bomber. You know he’s ominously out there somewhere – his 100m world record of 9.77sec is testament to that – it’s just that you don’t see him very often, writes Pat Butcher.
When a major confrontation comes around, the Jamaican tends to disappear. But given that the Commonwealth Games has been deprived of several of its principal draws, notably Ian Thorpe and Paula Radcliffe, Powell could finally find himself in the full glare of the floodlights when the athletics begins on Sunday morning at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, venue for the 1956 Olympic Games.
A first international sprint title for Powell is long overdue. It was a possibility in Paris 2003, it was a probability in Athens 2004, and it seemed a certainty in Helsinki 2005. Yet none of those materialised, for a variety of reasons that he said this week he would rather forget. Virtually unknown at the world championships in Paris three years ago, he nevertheless won a lot of fans retrospectively when it became clear that he was the guy who ran the fastest time in the first round, but who retired gracefully after a false start in the quarter-finals. (The next false-starter, Jon Drummond of the USA, chose to reduce the occasion to farce by lying on the track and holding up proceedings by half an hour.)
Powell’s pre-Olympic form the following year, with successive victories over defending champion Maurice Greene, made him favourite for Athens. But in what was effectively his first major final, he succumbed to the pressure and finished fifth. He got some measure of relief from bad memories when he went back to Athens early last summer and reduced Greene’s world record by a hundredth of a second. But disaster struck again: he pulled up at the London Grand Prix with a groin injury that refused to heal in time for the world championships in Helsinki.
“I didn’t really make a big deal of [Paris],” says Powell. “It was my first championships and I didn’t want to create a fuss. I went to Athens, saying there’s no way these guys can beat me, and that was a mistake. I ran the rounds too hard and got tired for the final. But Helsinki was a disappointment, because I didn’t get a chance to follow up on my world record. But I don’t want to think like that. My leg is healed and I’m ready to run again.”
Powell’s fleeting celebrity has not been helped by the US magazine Track & Field News, which recently referred to him as Donovan Powell. Donovan is Asafa’s elder brother by 11 years and was a world-class sprinter, but not in this century. The younger Powell, who is fast getting a reputation for equanimity, responds laconically: “Well, we do look alike but everyone knows he’s retired. I think they should really check that stuff.”
He concedes that he is the favourite for the Commonwealth title, the more so with the 2002 champion, Kim Collins of St Kitts & Nevis, withdrawing through injury. “Everyone is looking for me to bring a gold back home to Jamaica, and a lot of people in other places are expecting me to win. But anything could happen. There are plenty of other guys – my own team, others from the Caribbean, the British guys, the Nigerians. The US athletes are really the only ones missing.”
The few indications we have had of Powell’s current form have been encouraging: a scintillating relay leg in Jamaica three weeks ago, when statisticians computed he would have easily gone sub-10sec, and a 100m victory at the Melbourne Grand Prix 10 days ago. It was his first time out of the blocks this year and, against many of his Commonwealth rivals, including colleague Michael Frater who won world silver in Helsinki, he acquitted himself well enough. Powell won in 10.29sec running into a headwind on a cold and damp evening. The weather has improved and, while fans might want to see fast times, Powell says victory is more important and another potential world-record run can wait. “It’s early in the season, so I’m not expecting anything big – only to win. It would be my first international title. But I’m feeling a lot better already than I did before I broke the world record, I’m moving a lot faster in training. Maybe we can look forward to something special later.”
If Powell is the international draw, the great home-town hope, as Cathy Freeman was in Sydney for the 2000 Olympics, is Craig Mottram. The Aussie’s aggressive running against the “unbeatable” Africans has endeared him to many in the sport. And his “never-say-die” tactics got just rewards with a last-gasp dip to win a bronze medal in the 5,000m in the World Championships in Helsinki last summer.
Mottram has carried that form through the winter and dominated the Melbourne Grand Prix 2,000m, breaking legendary New Zealander John Walker’s Oceania (and former world) record with 5min 50.76sec. His principal opponents in the 5,000m are the Kenyans Augustine Choge and Benjamin Limo, who won that world title in Helsinki. But with 85,000 supporters cheering him on, it is not beyond Mottram to win two golds, since he also competes in the 1,500m.
Events off the track have also kept the Australian public focused on the games. Jana Pittman, the former world 400m hurdles champion, and Tamsyn Lewis, an 800m runner, have been having a very public slanging match about nothing very much except that Pittman is a high achiever while Lewis, to put it kindly, is not.
Then there’s the curious case of Sonia O’Sullivan. Due to her part-time residence in Australia, and long-term relationship with Nic Bideau (also Mottram’s manager/coach), who is the father of O’Sullivan’s two children, the Irishwoman recently acquired Australian nationality. She has duly been added to the Aussie team at 5,000m, the event where she won an Olympic silver in Sydney six years ago. But O’Sullivan still intends to run for Ireland in the European Championships in Gothenburg in mid-summer.
The IAAF loophole allowing O’Sullivan to represent more than one country has now been closed, and will come into force for the 2010 games
in Delhi. But while no one suggests that O’Sullivan has been offered any financial inducements (unlike the
several Kenyans who now compete
for Gulf States while continuing to live and train in Kenya), she has
been widely criticised, not least by Aussie icon Cathy Freeman – who
just happens to be Bideau’s previous partner. And they call them “the Friendly Games”.