Column: Get ready for race of the Olympics

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By TIM DAHLBERG, Associated Press

LONDON (AP) — If you're lucky enough to be within 100 miles of Olympic Stadium on Sunday and happen to have a wallet stuffed with bills featuring the queen, this would be worth the chance of being caught by the Olympic ticket police for buying outside official channels.

If it's just you and the family in front of the TV, make sure the lawn is mowed, the dog has been out, and the drinks are cold.

Whatever you do, don't blink.

The signature moment of the London Games will flash by in less time than it takes to tie your shoelaces. Eight of the fastest men in the world running 100 meters, where the only thing that matters is finishing first.

It's always great theater, always one of the highlights of the Olympics.

Only this time it might be the greatest 100-meter race ever.

Better than Carl Lewis and Ben Johnson in 1988, when we couldn't believe what we saw with our own eyes — with good reason, it turns out.

Faster, perhaps, than any human has ever run before.

"If you're sitting at home, don't sit at home — stand up," U.S. sprinter Justin Gatlin said. "It's going to be crazy. That's what you're going to do anyway — stand up."

We got a taste of what it's going to be like on Saturday, when guys were running heats that would have won medals a few years back. Gatlin threw a seemingly effortless 9.97 out there to win his, only to have teammate Ryan Bailey set an Olympic quarterfinal record in the next heat with a blazing time of 9.88 seconds.

All that happened before Usain Bolt, the man most of the 80,000 or so packed into Olymic Stadium came to see, tuned up with a 10.09 that was mostly spent looking around to make sure no one had the audacity to try and run past him.

"I'm feeling great," Bolt said. "I'm happy."

That's a scary thought, considering Bolt owns the world record in the 100 at 9.58 seconds and is the defending Olympic champion. Probably doesn't bother teammate Yohan Blake, though, who beat him in the 100 and 200 at the Jamaican national trials a month ago.

I say "probably" because Blake ran almost as fast trying to elude the media after as he did in winning his own heat in 10 seconds flat. Finally forced by Olympic officials to run the gauntlet in the mixed zone, he grunted a few times and was off to lunch, or something.

Gatlin wasn't so reticent, talking after winning his heat as if he was trying to make up for lost time. In a way he was, after missing the Beijing Olympics and four years of his prime when he was banned from the sport because of elevated testosterone levels. Before Saturday, the last race he ran in the Olympics was in Athens, when he won the gold medal in 9.85.

"Magical," Gatlin said about his quarterfinal run. "Feels great. Cried a couple of tears, flying down the track."

If this was a fight, it would be the heavyweight showdown of the century. Never has so much talent collided in one Olympic race, where it will be one mad dash for gold and the crown of "World's Fastest Human."

In one corner are the Jamaicans, cocky as usual and loaded with Bolt, Blake and Asafa Powell, all capable of winning the race. In the other are Gatlin and Tyson Gay, two Americans who bring some baggage, and Bailey, who showed Saturday he just plans to bring it.

Two gold medalists. Four men with the fastest times ever in the 100. A track that sprinters have already called crazy fast.

It could be historic. It will be memorable.

"Guys are running very fast," Powell said. "It's a new track. It's the Olympics. Everyone is ready."

That includes Bolt, whose focus was questioned after he lost to Blake. He's the fastest man in the world, and when his long legs are moving properly he's going to chew up more real estate in fewer strides than any of his challengers.

He won three golds in Beijing and he could win three more here, assuming the hamstring that bothered him in recent races has gotten better as he claimed after his heat. And he's got a mystique that intimidates other runners, even if he has trouble getting out of the blocks quickly, as he did Saturday.

"He's the equivalent of the guy walking on the moon for the first time," Gatlin said. "He's done something that no one has ever done before. You have to line up in the blocks shoulder to shoulder with this guy? You're going to be in awe sometimes."

The last time an Olympic 100 looked this good was nearly a quarter-century ago, when Johnson rumbled down the track to blow out Lewis with a 9.79 that astonished everyone in Seoul. It wasn't long before Johnson was running for a plane at the airport, chased out of the country after testing positive to the steroid stanozolol.

You want to believe today's sprinters are clean, though Gatlin's positive test in 2006 makes it difficult to totally believe anything. Track is a sport long dogged by doping problems, and as long as times keep dropping, there's always going to be suspicion surrounding the top runners in the world.

Hopefully, the drug testers have done their job. Hopefully, the runners have resisted the temptation to cheat.

The race that could define these Olympics is Sunday night. And it's way too good to spoil.

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Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg

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