Is Andre De Grasse ready to be the world's fastest man?
Usain Bolt's pending departure puts coveted title up for grabs
Editor's note: This story was posted before Andre De Grasse announced he will miss the upcoming world championships due to a hamstring injury.
The title of world's fastest human is arguably the most coveted and revered in all of sports.
Open to pursuit by everyone who knows how to run (at least in theory), the mystique of being recognized as the best 100-metre runner on the planet rests on the fact that the crown can be worn by only one person.
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As CBC Sports track analyst and former Olympic sprinter Anson Henry puts it: "You're the best at something that is done by everybody, pretty much. That's where the prestige comes in."
Donovan Bailey knows what it feels like to hold the most glamorous title in track and field. The Canadian's gold-medal winning time of 9.84 seconds in the 100 final at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta set a new world record that held up for nearly three years.
"What comes with the title is being globally recognized," Bailey says. "Obviously great economic opportunity and the opportunity to retire secure. Obviously great recognition by your country and fellow athletes. You are the very best there is."
For nearly a decade now, the crown has rested on the head of only one man: Usain Bolt. The Jamaican sprinter's dominance is unparalleled in the history of track and field, and he's run his best on the biggest stages.
Going back to his stunning performance at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where he officially seized the title, Bolt has won six of the seven 100-metre events contested at the Olympics and the world championships — his only blemish a false-start DQ at the 2011 worlds (Bolt has also captured every 200 and 4x100 title up for grabs at the Olympics and worlds over that time).
Bolt has run the 100 in under 9.80 seconds 12 times, including his world-record 9.58 at the 2009 world championships in Berlin and his Olympic-record 9.63 in 2012 in London — both of which still stand.
'He runs just like me'
During Bolt's reign, few runners have offered him a consistent challenge. But in recent years, emerging Canadian superstar Andre De Grasse has nipped at his heels.
It's hard to label it a true rivalry, since De Grasse, 22, has never beaten Bolt in the relatively short time since the Canadian joined sprinting's elite. But there is a mutual respect that was on full display at the Rio Olympics, where De Grasse took bronze in the 100 and silver in the 200.
The two men captivated fans with their bromance — their displays of affection on the track and Bolt's anointing De Grasse as a potential successor became one of the biggest stories of the Games in Canada.
"He's going to be good," Bolt said. "He runs just like me. He's really slow out of the blocks but when he gets going, he gets going."
The friendship may have cooled of late, with Bolt telling reporters before this week's world championships in London that "the last guy I said was going to be great disrespected me."
That appears to be a reference to De Grasse. The Canadian's coach, Stuart McMillan, told CBC Sports a few weeks ago that Bolt denied De Grasse entry into the 100 field at a Diamond League meet that Bolt was running in. Bolt and his team later denied that was the case.
To be the man...
With Bolt set to retire after running the 100 and the 4x100 relay at worlds (he's skipping the 200), De Grasse hasn't been shy about his desire to take the legend's title away from him before he walks away.
"I want to beat him before he retires," De Grasse acknowledges. "Usain is one hell of an athlete and in order for me to be considered one of the best I've got to beat him.
"It's his last world championships and it's going to be tough, but I have to try and spoil his parade."
And while De Grasse has put up some impressive times, including a wind-aided 9.69 in mid-June, Bolt has cautioned the Canadian to contain his enthusiasm.
"I always tell my younger athletes at Racers Track Club [in Jamaica], 'Listen, when you're climbing a ladder, you have to take your time and work your way up to the top.' So all I have to say to De Grasse is take your time and climb his way to the top," Bolt told reporters.
Even though Bolt may be at the end of his career, track insiders say it will be a difficult task to dethrone him in London.
"He has an incredibly unique body type. At 6-foot-5 he is probably the first person of that size to have the nervous system that allows him to move as rapidly and explosively as he does," says Canadian sprinting coach Kevin Tyler, who has been involved with De Grasse's training at ALTIS, an elite track facility in Phoenix.
"It's the combination of the two things that are deadly. As he tapers to the end of his career, we see people getting close. But at his peak nobody was really close."
That being said, Tyler predicts De Grasse will "undoubtedly" soon hold the title of fastest man in the world.
"He's not a big guy, not a guy you are going to see in the weight room moving a ton of weight, but he has a very good nervous system which allows him to apply a great deal of force in an extremely short period of time," Tyler says.
Henry agrees. He believes De Grasse is only "scratching the surface" of his physical abilities.
"Most sprinters hit their peak in their mid- to late 20s, and he is in his early 20s, so physically I think there is lot more there," Henry points out.
"It's funny, Andre's start is horrible but his top-end speed is arguably slightly below or on par with Bolt's. So if he can get out of the blocks stronger, you can put more force on the track, your stride is going to get longer, your turnover is better and then your top-end speed is faster. The fact that he is young [suggests] all of that can still get better."
Tyler says De Grasse's biggest advantage is he's relatively fresh in the world of track, both physically and mentally.
"I think Andre's window could be as long as Bolt's," Tyler says. "He started his career late in high school. He went to junior college for two years, where his training mode wasn't super high. And then he had one year at [the University of Southern California], where he started to prepare more like professional athletes, and then he had one year here with us. So he has only been training at a really high level for a couple of years, and he is young and he has never really had any major injury issues."
Tyler says the Markham, Ont., native is different from a lot of young athletes he's encountered.
"Andre went out and signed that [$11.25 million US endorsement] contract with Puma and he went out and bought a new Honda Accord, and that's what he is still driving. He could be driving anything he wants. That's just the way he is. If it was me I would probably be driving a Lamborghini."
Despite that humility, De Grasse is confident enough to admit he's gunning for Bolt's throne.
"It would mean everything to me. I've been working so hard for it," De Grasse says. "For me to be able to call myself the fastest man in the world, it would be a blessing. I don't even know how I would be able to handle it if it did happen.
"But I am definitely looking forward to that day."
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