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Usain Bolt’s injury could change landscape of Rio Olympics

Usain Bolt’s hamstring injury resulted in the runner withdrawing from the Jamaican Olympic Trials on Friday night. SI’s Tim Layden discusses how the star’s injury could affect the sport. 

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EUGENE, Ore. — There is seldom a quiet, unemotional session at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials. Track meets are beset with drama, as if under a historical mandate. So it was that the 2016 trials commenced Friday night at Hayward Field and did not disappoint. Moment after moment, until the biggest shock off all came from thousands of miles away.

Before the meet’s primary program was an hour old, U.S. 800-meter runners Duane Solomon, the fourth-place finisher in Kenyan David Rudisha’s world record gold medal run four years ago in London; and 19-year-old NCAA champion and newly minted professional runner Donavan Brazier, had failed to advance from the first round to the semifinals.

Sanya Richards-Ross, the defending women’s 400-meter gold medalist from London and the best quarter-miler in U.S. history, had failed to finish her opening run, stopping with a hamstring/quadriceps injury that had been hurting her for six weeks. Minutes later, Allyson Felix, who is attempting to double in the 200 and 400 meters in Rio, but missed a month of training with an ankle injury, advanced to the semifinals of the 400. Felix skipped a quick pass through the media zone—often a red flag. In fact, she was just getting immediate treatment to enable the five more races that she needs to run.

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Before the night was over, defending Olympic silver medalist Galen Rupp, who had already qualified for the U.S. team in the marathon in February, would win the 10,000 meters.

But by the time Rupp had won, an already eventful night was swallowed whole by the news out of Kingston, Jamaica that Usain Bolt had withdrawn from the 100-meter final of the Jamaican Olympic trials with a hamstring injury and, according to the Jamaica Gleaner and respected reporter Andre Lowe, was also unlikely to contest the 200 meters Sunday. In the U.S., any athlete must earn an Olympic spot by competing in the Trials (and in most cases, finishing in the top three spots). However, Jamaican rules allow for medical exemptions, so Bolt could still be added to the team.

Bolt tweeted his status two hours after his withdrawal:

Bolt also posted a photo himself on Twitter, lying on a treatment table with electrical stimulations pads on his left hamstring and the caption, “Starting the recovery process right away.”

Still, Bolt’s injury throws a shudder through the sport. He is not just the biggest name in track and field, he is, in many ways, the only name in track and field. His injury reverberates from the production trailers at NBC, where the network could be losing its biggest non-American prime time star, to the hallways of Eugene hotels, where suddenly a gold medal could be up for grabs.

It is clearly not what Bolt had planned for his summer. I met with Bolt six weeks ago on a warm spring night on Grand Cayman Island in the Caribbean. He was in the Caymans, a short flight from his home in Jamaica, for his first 100-meter race of what has been long planned as his last Olympic season. I watched as Bolt pounded through a full, two-hour workout on the only regulation running track on the island and then met with him later that evening back at his hotel suite overlooking a white sand beach.

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Bolt was in good spirits. He is almost always in good spirits, although not usually at the manic level seen by U.S. television audiences before and after any of his four individual Olympic gold medals. There were two over-arching themes to the interview. First, Bolt is very much looking forward to retirement, which he said would occur not after the Rio Olympics, but after the 2017 world championships in London. He has no grand plans. ``I just think about not doing track anymore,’’ he said that night. “You know what I mean.”

The other theme was this: Bolt wants very much to go to Rio, win the 100 meters (again), the 200 meters (again) and the 4X100-meter relay (again). “That would really set me apart,” said Bolt. And something else: “The one thing I’ve never had is a perfect season,” said Bolt. “No injuries, everything smooth, and see how fast I could run.” That will not happen now.

Watching Bolt over the last nine seasons, since his breakthrough 100-meter victory at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, has involved not only marveling at the sight of a big man running so fast, but also wondering if he was going to get healthy in time to thrill us with his gold-medal runs. Since 2008, various forces have often left him flirting with major championship defeat.

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In 2009, he was involved in a serious car accident in the winter; he returned to break worlds in the 100 (9.58) and 200 (19.19) at the world championships. In 2012, Yohan Blake twice beat Bolt at the Jamaican Olympic Trials. Last summer it was Bolt’s nagging back, an off-and-on issue since he was a teenager. He reached Beijing, site of the worlds, having run only a few serious races and yet managed to somehow beat Justin Gatlin of the U.S., who was in the best shape of his life.

“It was really stressful, man,” Bolt said. 

This year looked different. Bolt had a minor ankle injury in March, but had easily won three races before Friday night’s setback. It’s certainly possible that Bolt’s withdrawal is precautionary. Also, Bolt reportedly complained to meet officials that competitors had been brought out too early for the semifinals, and that his hamstring had gotten cold. Hence, his withdrawal might have been a form of protest.

Nothing is certain at this point, except that the track is again going to be held hostage by the Big Man’s balky body. Stressful, man, indeed.