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Usain Bolt out to rescue world championships

August 6, 2013

MOSCOW (AP) — Heading into the world championships, Usain Bolt stands as tall as ever. It just seems the sport around him has diminished.

Matching the sheer exuberance and sell-out mass appeal of the London Olympics was always going to be a stretch, but a shocking array of no-shows and doping scandals in several of the sport’s premier events has hit athletics hard.

It has left Bolt in a prime spot to add more gold to his gloried career. Of the athletes traveling to the Russian capital for next week’s championships, he has the fastest times in both the 100 and 200 meters. And given Jamaica’s standout tradition in the 4x100 relay, he is a favorite to win another golden triple.

Both won three golds at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, three at the London Games and three more at the 2009 worlds in Berlin. And with seven world championship medals already, a triple of any color would also move him alongside American great Carl Lewis as the most medaled man in the event’s history with 10 overall.

“Right now my only focus is winning three gold medals,” Bolt said in an email exchange with The Associated Press.

Only a year ago, Jamaican teammate Yohan Blake was challenging Bolt for Olympic supremacy in London, but came up with silver. This year was supposed to give him another shot, but the sprinter who won the world title in Daegu, South Korea, two years ago after Bolt false-started is out with a hamstring injury.

In Blake’s absence, a revitalized Tyson Gay was to challenge hard. Yet even though the American has the two top times over the 100 this year, Gay’s year, and perhaps his career, came crashing down when he relinquished his U.S. sprint spots for Moscow after failing an out-of-competition doping test.

Almost at the same time, it was announced that former world-record holder Asafa Powell tested positive for the stimulant oxilofrone at the Jamaican national championships in June.

The scandals leave Justin Gatlin as Bolt’s toughest competitor in the championship’s premier event. The 2004 Olympic champion already beat the Jamaican at the Diamond League meeting in Rome this spring, Bolt’s only competitive flaw this season.

“He knows that I’m going to come with my ‘A’ and he’s going to come with his ‘A’ game,” Gatlin said. “We’re both the kind of people that turn it on when the lights come on in a competition.”

In his favorite race, the 200, Bolt is going for his third straight world title, and there his competition will be as much the clock as teammate Warren Weir.

Bolt set the world record of 19.19 seconds at the 2009 worlds, but still feels improvements can be made.

“The 200 world record would be the one I’d really love to break again, to see if it’s maybe even possible to get it under 19 seconds,” Bolt said.

And when Bolt sets himself a challenge, he all too often turns it into reality.

The London Olympics still had plenty of world records, and none of the four were bigger than David Rudisha’s gold rush in the 800. The Kenyan, however, has seen his season go to waste because of a knee injury, robbing the championships of another big star.

Olympic heptathlon champion Jessica Ennis-Hill is also a no-show because of an Achilles problem. And the local crowd won’t even be able to shout for the defending champion, Tatyana Chernova, since she, too, is out injured.

Even off the track, the sport has been hit hard. Besides Bolt, no track athlete quite sparked the imagination at the London Games like Oscar Pistorius, the double-amputee South African who enthralled the 80,000-capacity crowds as he proved that competing can be as important as winning.

One year later, Pistorius is preparing for his murder trial in the Valentine Day’s shooting death of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp.

Add the injuries and the doping scandals, and it becomes quite an unpredictable world championships.

“I don’t ever remember going into a world championships with this sort of, I don’t want to say doldrums, but I’d be lying if I said we have the normal anticipation and hype going into the worlds,” four-time Olympic medalist and commentator Ato Boldon said.

Besides Bolt, Mo Farah will be going for multiple gold. After he clinched the long-distance double at the London Games last year, he is a favorite to repeat the 5,000-10,000 double at the Luzhniki Stadium.

While the established stars are not there, it is also time for new names and fresh faces.

At 24, Blessing Okagbare is hardly new, but Moscow could well become her breakthrough event. The Nigerian has been strong in the sprints and the long jump and, having beaten top challengers in all three events this year, she could be going for a triple gold.

For someone brand new to much of the world, yet exhilirating beyond compare this season, look for Brianna Rollins, the 21-year-old hurdler from the United States. She became the third-best performer in history in the 100 hurdles when she ran an American record of 12.26 at the U.S. championships in the fastest time in 21 years.

Not only does it underscore the potential for a world record at the championships, it also shows that, even with much new blood in the team, the United States looks set to dominate again.

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AP Sports Writer Pat Graham in Denver contributed to this report.

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