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PROTRACK » GENERAL » When you go to Stawell, Asafa - "Hit the line-hard!" by Len Johnson

When you go to Stawell, Asafa - "Hit the line-hard!" by Len Johnson

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Hit the line-hard!

A Column By Len Johnson
Runners tribe
January 25, 2013,

Asafa Powell , infuriatingly, has never met a finish line he has run hard through.

The Stawell Gift is a race which has never been won by someone who does not run hard through the line. Indeed, it is a requirement of the famous race that at least one finalist must take a spectacular dive and tumble through the finish line and onto the grass track.

Both these statements should be qualified. I’m sure the mighty Asafa has run at least one race in his career when he has barrelled all the way through the line and some distance beyond. It’s just that so many of his biggest races have been characterised by a somewhat lackadaisical approach to the last five metres.

Add in a tall, upright style which makes the classical sprinter’s dive for the line a more difficult movement for Powell than many of his sprint rivals and you get a lot of races in which Powell’s unwillingness/inability to throw at the tape has cost him victory.

Stawell, on the other hand, produces more dives than a whole fixture of EPL matches. There is only one big prize, everyone wants it, second pays peanuts, there is no tomorrow; etc, etc. There are even rules under which runners who ease down are fined for not running on their merits.

These rules are regularly applied, too, though rarely to those ‘smokies’ who get in under the handicapper’s notice by some 2-3 metres. You are more likely to be fined for not running up to your ability, than not running down to it!

In any case, it is great news that Asafa Powell is running the Stawell Gift. Every adjective in the press release announcing his coming is justified. Despite his undoubted flaws, Powell is one of the greatest sprinters ever, with more sub-10s than any man in history.

In the later stages of his career, John Walker made great play of becoming the first man to run 100 sub-4 minute miles. Powell has 88 sub-10 second 100 metres to his name, and wants to become the first man to 100.

Powell expressed this ambition before last year’s Shanghai Diamond League meeting.

“I’m sure I can do it in the next two years,” said Powell. He did it six times in 2012 and nine times in 2011, despite injury-curtailed seasons in both years, so he probably can.

Powell says he is over the groin injury which crippled his chances in London, restricting him to a jog-across-the-line last place in the Olympic final. He would never say it – and the history of Linford Christie, an Olympic gold medallist at the age of 32, suggests we should be wary of saying it, too – but it would seem his chances of ending his career with an Olympic or world title are gone.

As an unabashed Powell fan, it hurts me to acknowledge the major honours are probably beyond him now. In fact, he has gone from the undoubted best in the world in 2006, to the third best in Jamaica in the space of six years. Not only Usain Bolt, but also Yohan Blake, has gone past him.

Powell’s lustre had already started to dim when Tyson Gay beat him to win the world championships 100 in Osaka in 2007. The emergence of Bolt and then Blake, plus his continual injury problems, has continued to diminish him.

It is all too easy to forget just how good Powell was in 2006. Like Ron Clarke did in distance running in 1965, Powell’s season that year was of eye-popping quality. He won 16 of 17 races, his one defeat a false start ‘dq’ in his final outing of the year (how very Powell!). He equalled his world record twice – once in cold Gateshead, an amazing feat, the other time in the more sprint-congenial environment of Zurich.

Powell beat Gay in the World Athletic Final by just 0.03, but mostly his margin of victory over the rest of the world’s best was at least a metre.

I was fortunate to see Powell both at the start and finish of 2006. He ran in Melbourne, winning the 100 at the Commonwealth Games on the MCG, a run which drew some criticism in that he ‘failed’ to go sub-10. His most amazing burst of speed was in the relay at the Melbourne Track Classic a week or so earlier when a supersonic burst of acceleration took him from 3-4 metres behind the late Daniel Batman at the final change to a win by a similar margin.

Then, at the end of the year, I was in Stuttgart for the World Athletic Final. Powell ran 9.89 there, merely the seventh-fastest of his 11 legal sub-10s that year.

And now he will be at Stawell, seeking to become the third man in history to win the famous race off scratch. Whether he can remains to be seen.

In a way, it will be more a test of Stawell than of Powell. If Powell returns to full fitness, he will most likely be in sub-10 shape by April. Then, his winning chance will be determined by the handicapper. Powell will assuredly be off the scratch mark. If, as usually happens, the rest of the field get a lift of 0.5-1.0 metres due to his presence, Powell’s winning chance will be small indeed.

Only two runners have won from scratch in Gift history, Jean Louis Ravelomanantsoa in 1975 and Josh Ross in 2005. The fate of most international invitees – Christie, Jon Drummond, Kim Collins and Michael Frater come to mind – is to provide the lead-in publicity then be run out in the heats or semi-finals.

If Powell is to make his own bit of history, he will have to take the Stawell Gift seriously. Equally, Stawell will have to take the possibility of Powell’s winning from scratch just as seriously.

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