Powell's powering up
8 June 2006
By Paul Gilder
Perceptions of Jamaica's sporting pedigree have not been enhanced by the recent exploits of the island's underperforming footballers on UK soil, the Reggae Boyz delivering a stark demonstration of the reasons for their failure to reach the World Cup by providing shooting practice for those bound for the German finals over the course of the last 11 days.
For those with the Caribbean close at heart, it is perhaps fortunate that the next Jamaican scheduled to showcase his talents here is much better at what he does.
It will be Asafa Powell's intention to repair shattered reputations when he makes his maiden appearance in the North-East this weekend. Unlike his crushed compatriots, the 23-year-old is at the peak of his profession.
Powell arrived on Tyneside last night with his reputation intact, his ambitions undiminished and his intentions obvious. Fiercely proud of the fact no athlete has ever covered 100m in a faster time than the 9.77 seconds he ran in Athens 12 months ago next week, this is a man for whom breaking records is the strongest motivation of all.
"Holding a world record is as good as winning a major championship, it's a major accomplishment, and you could say it's like winning a gold medal," explained a man who will attempt to break the track record held by Dwain Chambers for the last seven years when he competes at Sunday's Norwich Union Grand Prix meeting at Gateshead's International Stadium.
The Commonwealth Games sprint champion will take to his blocks in prime form. "When I ran 10.03 at the Commonwealths, I said to myself then that it would be my only 10-second race of the season," said an athlete for whom finishing times in excess of 10 seconds are these days deemed a failure.
"I'm looking to stay under 10 seconds now and, having had a look at the track here, there's no reason why I can't do it at the weekend."
"I know what the record is at Gateshead and given that it is usually cold here and it often rains, I think Dwain's 10.05 is a really fast time. I want to break that record at this meeting and that will be the biggest challenge for me."
Beating a local record of little consequence was not supposed to be the biggest challenge on a weekend when the world's two fastest men had been scheduled to finally go head-to-head in a contest which would have brimmed with intrigue.
The unfortunate withdrawal of Justin Gatlin - the world and Olympic champion who equalled Powell's record in Doha last month - has robbed the meeting of its greatest draw. Powell insisted last night that he is unconcerned by the New Yorker's refusal to race, but his body language suggested otherwise.
"It doesn't bother me that he isn't here, it doesn't make any difference to me whether he's here or not," said the Jamaican, whose fierce rivalry with Gatlin has become one of the biggest stories in athletics. "I'm still going to go out and win on Sunday, with or without him."
If the 100m is a discipline with a penchant for the controversial - Tim Montgomery followed in the unfortunate footprints of Ben Johnson last year in the wake of the Balco doping scandal - the farcical preparations for this weekend's meeting have been characteristic. The questionable decision of Renaldo Nehemiah to withdraw Gatlin from a race the athletics world is desperate to witness was a shot in the foot for a sport in dire need of crowd-pullers.
The Olympic champion's agent insisted Gatlin had not agreed to take on Powell when he made his commitment to the North-East. But at no point was it stipulated that the Jamaican would not be allowed to race and, with a vast number of tickets having being sold on the grounds that the world's two fastest men would meet at last, the carefully-laid plans of the organisers were left in tatters.
So were the hopes of those who had dreamed of seeing history written in the North-East. Powell last night insisted he does not need Gatlin to help him break the world record the pair share, but his chances of doing so in the company of the accomplished American would be much better.
"I don't need him in a race to get the record back," said an athlete who bristles when reminded of Gatlin's assertion that championship medals are far more important than records."
"I ran 9.77 without him and I still have more gas in the tank - I can go faster, there's no doubt about it. If championship medals are more important, then why does he want the record so bad? I know that he wants it badly. I wouldn't give my record up for anything and I'm not going to let anyone talk my record down."
There is clearly no love lost between the pair - "We are not really friends, I might say `hi' but we wouldn't have a conversation," explained Powell - and his determination to re-establish himself as the sole world record holder is obvious.
"I'm not going to say that I want to get it back," said a man who believes he could beat his impressive time of 9.77 before the end of this season. "I'm going to get it back. The world record will depend on good weather and good tracks and not on Gatlin. I know what I'm capable of doing, I know how I feel and I know that I'm going to push myself to the limit. I will take this sport to another level."
Given that he only started sprinting five years ago, that Powell has achieved so much in his four years of professional competition means he is a man to be taken seriously. It is something that the likes of Jason Gardener, Darren Campbell and Mark Lewis-Francis should all bear in mind as they prepare to take on a man determined to become the first athlete to break the fabled 9.6-second barrier.
"I expect to win all my races and I expect to run fast times, and it will be no different here," he added. "Since I have been in Europe, I have grown used to running in the cold, the wind and the rain. I'm used to Jamaica, to the heat, and if the conditions stay like they are at the minute, it will suit me down to the ground."
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