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Berlin seeks sprint spark for blue touchpaper

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Tom Fordyce | 16:50 UK time, Friday, 14 August 2009

One of the first things you see on the way into Berlin - after the glistening Fernsehturm Tower and the adverts for the World Fireworks Championships in September - are enormous billboards featuring images of Usain Bolt, Tyson Gay and the simple message "Grossen duell".

There is much more to the next nine days of athletics than just the battle for sprinting supremacy between Bolt and Gay, but their showdown is dominating the thoughts of both fans and organisers in this sport-mad city.

Athletics desperately needs stars, and star rivalries, to grab the world's attention, and not just because of the World Fireworks (memo to Seb Coe: why didn't Britain bid for that too? Motto: "Bonfire's Coming Home"; fund-raising slogan: "Penny for the Guy").

Bolt and Gay at news conferences before their sprint duel

Across Europe, the start of the new football season is commandeering the back pages. In America, the USPGA championships takes the television air-time. In England there's the small matter of the deciding Ashes Test at The Oval.

Bolt, the one track and field athlete recognised pretty much anywhere round the world, is his sport's trump card. Throw in Gay, the only man to seriously threaten his dominance over the last two years, and you have something to take on all those other sports.

Bolt has been his usual self in Germany so far. If he feels under any pressure to replicate those extraordinary deeds in Beijing 12 months ago, he's doing a mighty good job of disguising it.

On Thursday he took to the stage of a converted nightclub wearing a giant set of foam arms that allowed him to mimic his famous archer pose without breaking undue sweat ("Energy-saving", as he put it). In place of last summer's golden spikes are some orange ones, a colourful marketing tribute to the Trelawny yams that fuelled his record-breaking speed.

"I'm ready and I've got some new stuff," he said, like a kid about to start back at school. "I just want to run, I'm just itching to. I've been training hard, I've put the work in and I'm fully fit.

"I'm confident, but not too confident."

Bolt's shoes

Gay, meanwhile, is the sort of chap who wouldn't normally say boo to a gosling. As the reigning world champion over both 100m and 200m, however, as well as the fastest man in the world over both distances this year, he's showing signs of an uncharacteristic boastfulness.

"I believe there will be a surprise about how fast a human body can go," he says. "The world record is the only number I have in mind.. I believe 9.60 is attainable, hopefully anything under 9.69."

Such testosterone talk is sweet news for organisers still twitchy about the advance ticket sales for these championships.

Until a few days ago there was a real fear that a stellar occasion like the men's 100m might draw a smaller crowd than a local comedian named Mario Barth, who packed 70.000 people into the Olympiastadion for a gig last year. When you're less popular than a German comedian, you know you really are in trouble.

The official line on Friday was that 335,000 out of a rough total of around half a million had already been snaffled, which by the standards of recent World Championships is a decent showing.

Then again, that was almost the point of staging the 12th Worlds in a city like Berlin. Germany has a long and proud tradition in the sport, and its capital is far more of an athletics hotbed than Osaka (2007), Edmonton (2001) or Athens (1997).

The heartening early news from a British perspective? Its beleaguered team has already been awarded its first gold medal.

Berlin's Olympic Stadium is preparing

As stadium officials ran through their last-minute dress rehearsals on Friday afternoon, the PA system proudly announced that the winner of the men's pole vault was none other than Steve Lewis. If it seemed a little pre-emptive (the final isn't due to start for another week) then head coach Charles van Commenee will be happy to take any good omen he can find.

Just as the championships need a big start from Bolt and Gay to really get going, so the British team is hoping for an early lift from Jess Ennis. By the time the sprinters line up in Sunday's 100m final, the destination of the heptathlon gold will already be decided.

In some ways the burden of expectation on the 23-year-old Ennis is unfair. While she's the top-ranked heptathlete in the world coming to Berlin, you could throw a blanket over the top five - but as Van Commenee knows only too well, his squad's medal chances elsewhere are limited.

The majority of the team is yet to arrive in the city. Most are still at the holding-camp in Portugal, and will only fly across a couple of days before their events.

The exception is the biggest name of the lot, Paula Radcliffe, whose test-run in the New York Half-Marathon will ensure that many British eyes on Sunday will be focused thousands of miles away across the Atlantic as much as on Berlin.

For now, it's all about finishing touches and crossing fingers. The Olympiastadion is ready, its blue track primed to power the pitter-patter of Bolt and Gay's lightweight spikes, its rafters hung with the flags of the 213 nations taking part.

Even the World Fireworks can't hold a Roman candle to that.



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