Asafa Powell: Crippled by doubt

Ten seconds should not be long enough to change the course of a lifetime, but for 100m athletes that is all it takes. Tyson Gay is now a world champion—a man of stature assured of his place in sporting history, with a reputation enhanced by his generous nature.

Asafa Powell has a bronze medal cast from self-doubt, a physique that appears to belie his inner weakness and a world record-holder tag that comes with the word “choker” in parenthesis.

It is perhaps harsh that such judgements are placed on a sportsman who is 24 but, while injuries can be treated and ultimately healed, a lack of confidence is a more chronic problem and, in moments of stress and brutal honesty, the inner psyche is impossible to suppress.

Even the best sportsmen and women have moments of doubt, but it is how they deal with such times that sets them apart from their competitors.

Gay described how, in the hours leading up to the race, his mind had too many negative thoughts floating around and it was only a call to his mother that helped him to regain his positive posture and focus on his own abilities and performance, unlike his opponent.

The 100m is nothing if not gladiatorial, and what seems obvious is that when Powell is in the arena with lesser beings, the contest is brief but one-sided. He even takes time to tease and play with his opponents and, occasionally when it takes his fancy, the muscles are flexed a little harder and we get the physical display that produces super-fast times.

But when he steps out into the cauldron of a world or Olympic final, fear seems to grip him. When he heard the steps of Gay resounding in his ears, all of his attention switched from his own progress to that of his rival and, in so doing, he hurried his own demise. Instead of turning his half-metre lead into a winning advantage, his mind switched lanes to the American’s, and with it went the gold medal and the world title he craved.

I admit I was swayed by his physical prowess leading into these championships and still in the early rounds but, once the field lined up behind their blocks for the final, the yellow of the Jamaican vest seemed to be sweeping through the body of Powell.

It is true that, if to become a champion you have first to act like one, then his entrance on to the stage was not going to win any Oscars. His quick start was no more than a reflexive, well-drilled reaction to the tension-releasing gun, but once the real racing started there was a wrong turn at some synaptic junction in Powell’s brain and the result was another big-race dead end.

To facilitate the breakdown, Gay had to be the threat that he promised and ultimately he was more than that. It is not pretty from the Kentucky man but his desire to win pumps through the sinews that stand out on his neck and hold his head high when others have bowed.

Both men were capable of running 9,85 seconds but only one did. Both were good enough to be world champion but only one is and both will look to Beijing but only one will believe.

Gay will follow in illustrious footsteps if he converts this world title into Olympic gold next year, and not many would bet against him. He may be more wary of stronger teammates in 2008, such as the absent Walter Dix, but while he will still have respect for Powell, I doubt that he will lose too many hours of sleep this winter wondering what the crestfallen Jamaican is up to.

Gay himself has issues to deal with, not least the release from prison this week of his coach, Lance Brauman, who has been serving a sentence for fraud. His tutelage under Jon Drummond in the meantime has paid dividends and Gay will have to find a way to maintain his relationships and a routine that has brought such success.

But these are minor concerns and as long as he stays true to his normal ways I do not foresee many problems for him.

Powell is a wounded person and the wounds appear to run deep. His redemption can be found only within his own thoughts.

Physically he is gifted beyond compare. His languid style, combined with sheer power, should strike fear into the heart of a competitor, but up until now he has performed better against the clock than a world-class field. Maybe 10 seconds is indeed too short a time to determine one’s destiny in life. The problem for Powell is that it is too much time for him to think.—Â

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