LONDON -- Justin Gatlin says hold on a second. Or perhaps 9.8 seconds. The way he sees it, Sunday's 100-meter final is not just a two-man race between Jamaica's Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake.
"I think seven guys can win. The whole eight in the field, actually," Gatlin said after Saturday's heats. "If you put everything together, with the right wind behind you, the track, and everyone has a good start and is working the second half of the race -- it's just going to be who's going to be able to put on the best technical race."
Gatlin has some expertise in this matter. He was the 100-meter gold medalist at the 2004 Olympics, but was serving a four-year ban for a positive PED test when Bolt electrified the world with his gold-medal performance at Beijing in 2008.
Bolt lost at last year's world championships when he false-started and hasn't been running consistently at top form this year, either. Blake, who ran in 10 flat in his Saturday heat, became the youngest 100 world champ at age 21 last summer, then beat Bolt in the 100 and 200 at the Jamaica Olympic trials last month. Some consider him, not Bolt, to be the favorite Sunday.
Bolt stumbled a bit out of the blocks in his heat, but recovered quickly and won easily enough, though his time (10.09) was slower than that of Blake and the top three Americans -- Gatlin, Tyson Gay and Ryan Bailey. Gatlin, however, said he thought Bolt ran well: "He looked like Bolt."
And that can be an intimidating sight.
"He's the equivalent of a guy walking on the moon for the first time," Gatlin said. "He's done something no one else has ever done -- and you've got to line up in the blocks shoulder to shoulder with this guy? You're going to be in awe sometimes. I think a lot of runners are almost looking to see what he's going to do, even when you're running.
"You've got to block that out and go out there and compete."
It isn't just Bolt's speed that excites fans -- it's also his style, with his signature lightning-bolt arm pose and demonstrative preparations as he gets into the blocks. Gatlin is just fine with that, saying it has brought excitement to track and field, but doesn't affect the race.
"I love entertainment. I love going to movies, I love watching theater in the park, so the answer is if that's what they want to do, so be it," he said when asked about Bolt and the Jamaican runners after winning the U.S. trials in June. "I have to worry about my lane. If he's in Lane 4 doing a tap dance, that's great. I'll be in Lane 3 and focused on Lane 3. My lane is just as long as his lane, no shorter. I have to worry about that."
Of course, before we crown the world's fastest man, all of the runners must reach the finals. There will be an American and Jamaican runner in each of the three semifinal heats Sunday evening. Gatlin and Asafa Powell run in the first heat, Bolt and Bailey run in the second, and Gay and Blake in the third. The two top finishers in each heat, plus the next two fastest times, will advance to the final at the end of the night's competition.
Bailey had Saturday's best time with a personal-best-tying 9.88. The 23-year-old has overcome a lot to get to the start line. Growing up, he moved between cities -- "Too many to count" -- with his mother as she followed her husband from prison to prison. He was briefly in a gang in Ohio. As recently as four years ago, he still was sleeping on his mother's floor.
"It wasn't the best childhood," he said at U.S. trials. "I just realized I was on the wrong road and needed to turn my life around."
Gay ran a 10.08 on Saturday, saying he felt good but ran the heat at roughly 75 percent. In addition to the strength of the Jamaican runners, the challenge for Gay is his own body. He has had hamstring issues and underwent hip surgery last year. The hip was so sore this spring, he had to run on grass to avoid pain. But he once ran 9.69, and is one of only three runners who know what it feels like to line up against Bolt and beat him.
In what he termed "a nice stroll," Gatlin ran a 9.97 in his heat and is looking to improve it Sunday night (his best is 9.8). Running on what has been declared a fast track, can he or his teammates knock off the Jamaicans?
"We all have our eye on the prize. We want to get that gold," Gatlin said at trials. "So if it's going to be three Jamaicans in our way or the whole world in our way, that's what it's going to take to get around that and get that gold medal."