Feature13 Jun 2017

Game on as De Grasse plans to dethrone Bolt


Canadian sprinter Andre De Grasse in training in Phoenix, Arizona (© Jean-Pierre Durand)

Andre De Grasse has awakened the sleeping giant.

In the build-up to his 100m season-opener at last Saturday’s Racers Grand Prix in Jamaica, Usain Bolt cautioned De Grasse about his plan to dethrone the Jamaican sprint legend at the IAAF World Championships London 2017 on 4-13 August.

De Grasse has been forthright about his lofty ambition. And now that he has the attention of the greatest sprinter of all time, it’s game on. But while De Grasse is keen to put a damper on what is expected to be Bolt’s retirement party in London, the 22-year-old Canadian is not getting ahead of himself.

“I don’t really think about beating him,” says De Grasse. “I came third in the 100m at the Rio Olympics, so of course I have to go through (Justin) Gatlin and the rest of the guys in the field. If I can do that and execute my race, I can go out there and win. I don’t know what time to expect, but it has to be fast.”

On paper, the Bolt-De Grasse duel looks to be a mismatch. Bolt is the 100m world record-holder at 9.58, while De Grasse is more than three-tenths of a second slower at 9.91. But De Grasse has enjoyed a meteoric rise, and few would doubt he is capable of running much faster in the short sprint.

De Grasse’s first competitive outing came in 2012, three years after Bolt’s jaw-dropping 9.58 run at the IAAF World Championships in Berlin. De Grasse’s run opened eyes as well, the 17-year-old clocking 10.91 in basketball shorts from a standing start.

Five years later, and a full second faster, De Grasse is a rising star in the sport. He already has three Olympic medals, as well as two from the IAAF World Championships Beijing 2015 and a couple of Pan American Games titles.

But De Grasse understands that greatness in his chosen sport is judged by global gold. He is therefore unwilling to entertain a conversation about being the next ‘big one’ in the sprints.

“That’s for the fans to think about, for you guys (sports journalists) to talk about. But for me, I can’t be cocky and say I’m going to be one of the best. I haven’t won an Olympic gold medal, I haven’t won a World Championship gold medal, so I can’t say I’m going to be the next star. I have to go out there and prove it.”

Wisely, De Grasse seeks counsel from an eight-time Olympic champion and 11-time World Championships gold medallist.

“It’s always good to talk to Bolt,” says De Grasse, “see what he’s up to and how he manages his schedule. I need to be prepared. He’s a multiple Olympic champion, and that’s somewhere I want to be some day.”

De Grasse and Bolt had a memorable duel in the semi-final round of the 200m at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. Bolt won in 19.78 with De Grasse a close second in a Canadian record time of 19.80. In the final, Bolt grabbed gold and De Grasse seized silver. Warm smiles were exchanged during their semi-final clash, and Bolt endorsed his young rival.

“When the best in the world is telling you that you could be one of the best, it gives you a lot of confidence. Whatever he says, it’s like icing on the cake. I just try to go out there and prove to myself and prove to everybody that I belong and I could be one of the best.”

While De Grasse will have to beat Bolt to get to the top of the London podium in the 100m, the task will not be as tough in the 200m since the Jamaican has said he will not compete in the half-lap event. But De Grasse is not taking Bolt to his word, and suspects that he will indeed face the starter in the 200m.

“That’s weird. It’s his best event, so I don’t know why he would not run it.”

Assuming that the great one will actually opt out of the 200m in London, a Bolt-less race ought not to be considered a free run to gold.

The event threatens to be extremely competitive, and at last count five men had sub-20 performances in 2017: USA’s Christian Coleman (19.85) and Noah Lyles (19.90), South Africans Wayde van Niekerk (19.90) and Akani Simbine (19.95), and Trinidad and Tobago’s Jereem Richards (19.97).

De Grasse is certainly up for the challenge. Described by his coach Stuart McMillan as “perhaps the worst trainer I’ve ever seen”, the Toronto sprinter is not setting the track on fire at his Altis training base in Phoenix, Arizona, USA. But De Grasse is a big occasion performer, and, all things being equal, will bring his ‘A’ game to the World Championships in London.

“It’s the adrenaline, the atmosphere,” he says. “Training is quiet so it’s hard to stay motivated all the time. But when you get into the stadium, everything clicks. You’re ready. You know you’ve worked for this moment, and you want to go out there and prove that you belong and you’re the best. This year, though, I’m starting to step up my training a bit more and take it a little more seriously.”

To realise the goal of dethroning Bolt in his swansong 100m, De Grasse will probably require a personal best. Perhaps, he’ll even need to go faster than the wind-assisted 9.75 he produced in winning the NCAA title in 2015.

“I don’t want to set limits on myself,” says De Grasse, who will contest the 100m at the IAAF Diamond League meetings in Oslo and Stockholm this week. “Before I ran that 9.75, I just said I want to go out there and win. I know if I can go out there and win and I feel good on that day, anything’s possible. I always want to run faster.

“The first thing on my mind is breaking the Canadian record of 9.84 set by Donovan (Bailey) and Bruny (Surin),” he adds. “And from there, another personal best, or even breaking the world record.”

Kwame Laurence (Trinidad Express) for the IAAF