DAEGU, South Korea — Stepping out onto the big stage, Usain Bolt instantly transforms into the ultimate showman.
The Jamaican sensation played to the adoring crowd again Saturday at the world championships, blowing on his fingers as if to cool off the tips of his imaginary pistols and mugging for the camera at every opportunity.
Once he settled into the starting blocks, Bolt put on a show in the 100 meters. He was well out in front of the field after his first step and so far ahead by the midway point that he looked back at the pack with a big, you-can’t-catch-me grin on his face, easily winning his heat in 10.10 seconds.
“It was a good run,” Bolt said, nonchalantly.
Meanwhile, Ashton Eaton of the United States leads the decathlon after five events, 53 points ahead of teammate and defending world champion Trey Hardee.
In the first round of the women’s 400, Americans Sanya Richards-Ross and Allyson Felix had little trouble advancing out of their heats. Richards-Ross won her race easily, while Felix started off strong, only to be passed near the finish as she eased up to conserve energy.
After all, she has a long week in front of her.
Felix began her quest to capture the 200 and 400 titles in Daegu, a difficult task given all the rounds and not much of a break in between events.
“I feel good, excited to finally get started,” Felix said.
The Kenyan women were perfect twice on the opening day of the championships. The African nation swept both the women’s marathon and 10,000 to finish the day six-for-six in medals, an unprecedented feat for the first day in the 28 years of the championships.
Former Olympic gold medalist Justin Gatlin advanced to the next round of the 100 – bad feet and all. The American recently got frostbite after stepping into a cryogenic chamber with wet socks. He didn’t lose any toes, but his wounds have hardly healed.
The 29-year-old Gatlin is running to repair his reputation as well. He’s been waiting for this moment since returning to competition last season after serving a four-year doping ban.
“It feels good,” Gatlin said. “One thing I learned going through championships throughout my career is it’s not about what you do in first round. A lot of people like to throw out good times.”
Reigning world pole vault champion Steve Hooker of Australia failed to clear a height in qualifying and was eliminated. Later, Olympic 400 champion Christine Ohuruogu of Britain was disqualified for a false start.
Bolt has been hearing about how he’s lost a step this season and runners such as Trinidad and Tobago’s Richard Thompson or Jamaican teammate Yohan Blake are ready to take away his title at the worlds.
The always affable Bolt was better than both Saturday night and barely even broke a sweat. Thompson was third in his heat (10.34), while Blake had little trouble winning in 10.12.
“People are always going to say what they want,” Bolt said. “I’m focused on what I want. My focus is to go out there and win, execute and show the world I’m still the best.”
Bolt was out in front of the field so fast that it looked like he was given a head start.
British runner Dwain Chambers had to try to play catch-up from the moment the gun sounded. And he, along with every other sprinter, has come to realize there’s simply no catching up to Bolt when he’s at his best.
Chambers finished second and advanced to the semifinals on Sunday. The finals are Sunday night.
With Tyson Gay sidelined because of a surgically repaired hip and world leader Asafa Powell withdrawing two days ago because of a groin injury, Bolt’s main rivals aren’t there to give him a nudge.
That’s all right — he still has the clock. And at major events, that’s become his biggest competitor.
In the marathon, Edna Kiplagat crashed on the street late in the race only to recover and lead her nation to an unprecedented sweep in 2:28:43 and earn the first gold medal of the competition. Kiplagat got tangled up with teammate Sharon Cherop at one of the last water stations and suddenly was on all fours.
“I was a little shocked,” Kiplagat said. “What was in my mind was I wasn’t sure if I was going to pick up the pace again.”
Vivian Cheruiyot led a Kenyan sweep in the 10,000 in 30:48.98.
“We were inspired by the marathon girls and we wanted to achieve the same,” Cheruiyot said.
World-record holder Bolt is picking up where he left off at the last world championships two years ago in Berlin, where he dominated the field. Bolt broke his own 100 mark in Berlin with a time of 9.58.
He’s already acknowledged he’s not in record-breaking shape this season. But judging by his performance in the first round, Bolt may want to adjust that thinking.
He did his best to rev up the crowd Saturday, constantly clowning around and running his fingers through his hair while looking up at himself on the stadium’s big screen. Even his uniform looked special. The daughter of reggae great Bob Marley was hired to design the team’s gear.
Bolt hummed down the lane, too, until he shut it down a good 40 meters before the finish. That’s all he needed as he planted this thought into everyone’s mind: When he runs like this, can Bolt be beat?
“That’s a good question,” Thompson said. “I’ll have to figure it out.”
For as good as Bolt looked, this might not be a cakewalk. Two-time Olympics bronze medalist Walter Dix captured his preliminary heat in 10.25 and, just like Bolt, did so in easy fashion. After crossing the line, Dix did a little strut and puffed out his chest, knowing he ran the way he envisioned.
“I wanted to come out and win the race easily,” Dix said.
Before the start of the 100, former world champions Maurice Greene and Gay chatted at a get-together to discuss track’s signature event. They stated their favorites in the 100, among other events.
Gay’s favorite wasn’t a surprise – Bolt. But Greene chose Blake, Bolt’s up-and-coming teammate.
“In championships, stars are born and stars are made,” Greene said. “He’s young, talented and doesn’t know any better than to just go out there and run fast.”
Go ahead, doubt Bolt. He enjoys proving people wrong.
Even more, he enjoys celebrating in front of them.
The most compelling race of the championships is still on after Liu Xiang, Dayron Robles and David Oliver all qualified for the semifinals of the 110-meter hurdles.
Liu proved he is finally getting back to the form which earned the 2004 Olympic and 2007 world titles by having plenty of time to ease up at the line and still win his heat. Oliver kept his powerful shoulders in perfect balance over the hurdles as he dashed through a winner, too.
Only the easygoing Olympic champion from Cuba, who flaunted his form with his graceful strides over the 10 hurdles, let American rival Aries Merritt nip him at the line.
“Everybody is looking good,” Robles said. “It’s very good for the final.”
The final is set for Sunday and should bring the three fastest performers in history together for one of the highlights of the nine-day championships.
“It will take 13 seconds or better to win,” Liu said through a translator.
Robles holds the world record at 12.87 seconds, with Liu’s best time just .01 seconds behind. Oliver trails by another .01, highlighting how tight the race could be.
Defending champion Ryan Brathwaite failed to make the semifinals.
In the first of six finals of the day, Olympic and defending world champion Valeriy Borchin led a 1-2 Russian finish in the 20-kilometer walk with a time of 1 hour, 19 minutes, 56 seconds. Vladimir Kanaykin took silver, 31 seconds behind, and Luis Fernando Lopez of Colombia was third.
Kenenisa Bekele will be looking for his fifth straight 10,000-meter title, which would push him past the mark he now shares with Ethiopian great Haile Gebrselassie. Since he has not run for the better part of two seasons because of injury, victory is anything but assured.
The men’s decathlon also reaches its final, with American teammates Trey Hardee and Ashton Eaton at the top of the standings after seven of 10 events.
The women’s long jump and discus throw are the other finals on Sunday.
Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press
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