RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — The World's Fastest Man has been paying attention to the world's fastest women in the run-up to the Olympics.
While the men have been taking the 100 meters at a leisurely pace this year — or, in the case of Usain Bolt, barely at all — the women have been playing "Can You Top This?"
Five sprinters have joined the small list of women to crack the 10.8-second mark: Elaine Thompson of Jamaica, Murielle Ahoure of the Ivory Coast and American teammates English Gardner, Tianna Bartoletta and Tori Bowie. Throw in two-time defending Olympic champion Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, who has cracked 10.8 seconds 11 times before, and the women's 100 might be the most up-for-grabs race on the card.
Qualifying starts Friday — the first day of track at the Olympics.
"I've been trying to pick the top three for the longest while," Bolt said. "It's going to be a hard one. The women are really pushing. The guys have really let us down this season."
In part because Bolt got hurt during his national championships, the men haven't posted a single time this year lower than the 9.80 that Justin Gatlin ran in the final of the U.S. Olympic Trials. Bolt's best time was a 9.88 in June. His world record is 9.58 and he ran 9.79 while dinged up at the world championships last year, to edge out Gatlin by .01.
Olympic fireworks could be in store for Bolt and Gatlin, whose qualifying begins Saturday, with the final set for Sunday.
The women, meanwhile, have decided not to wait.
Until this year, the 10.7-and-better territory was dominated by four women: World-record holder Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Marion Jones (who has had several of her results overturned because of doping), Fraser-Pryce and Carmelita Jeter, who ran the anchor leg in the U.S.'s world-record 4x100 at the London Games.
Thompson bullied her way into that group by running 10.70 at Jamaica's nationals to beat Fraser-Pryce. Both have been dealing with minor injuries since (Fraser-Pryce a toe, Thompson a hamstring), but their coach, Stephen Francis, told the Jamaica Gleaner they should be ready to go.
"You saw (them) at the trials, they are better than they were then," Francis said. "Hopefully my thoughts will be borne out in actual competition."
Bartoletta ran her 10.78 at the U.S. Olympic Trials last month to edge out Bowie and finish .04 seconds behind Gardner.
It's a race that left Bowie in tears because she felt she didn't execute well, and that left Bartoletta, who also competes in the long jump, smiling: "The goal was not be a hero in the 100. The plan wasn't to win anything. The plan was to make the team," she said.
Left unsaid is that none of these runners have peaked, or had a chance to run injury-free yet this summer. Also in the mix is Dafne Schippers, the Dutch heptathlete-turned-sprinter who won 200-meter gold and 100-meter silver at last year's world championships.
An impressive lineup.
Bolt, who knows more about winning when the stakes are highest, predicts the mental game will play as much a role as the physical in Saturday's final.
"When they get to that last 30 meters and look and everyone's in a line," he said, "it's all about who can hold their mental toughness and get to the line."