08/02/2012 01:30 EDT | Updated 10/02/2012 05:12 EDT

Star search: Bolt, Blake get chance to take Olympic spotlight as athletics meet set to start

LONDON - By the time Usain Bolt's showboating, record-breaking, gold-gobbling act on the track got revved up at the Beijing Games four years ago, Michael Phelps already was firmly established as The Star of those Olympics.

Nothing anyone did — even Bolt's unprecedented sweep of the 100, 200 and 4x100-metre relay with best-in-history times — could possibly steal the spotlight from Phelps and his eight-gold performance in the pool.

Now it's a different story.

The first week of the London Olympics left a noticeable vacancy on centre stage. As if on cue, up steps Bolt, the effervescent Jamaican sprinter who comes in with the most to win, and lose, as the 10-day athletics meet begins Friday at 80,000-seat Olympic Stadium.

Bolt wants nothing less than to become a "living legend" and is well aware that repeat victories in the two individual sprints will put him there. Of course, he'll need to be better than countryman Yohan Blake, who upset Bolt in the 100 and 200 finals at the Jamaican trials.

Win or not, Bolt is guaranteeing a good show.

"Hands down. For sure," he said. "I'm thinking this could easily be one of the fastest 100 metres anybody has ever seen, because these guys have shown a lot of potential throughout the season. There are guys that have been running fast, especially because it's an Olympic year."

Bolt was coasting, thumping his chest before he crossed the finish line, when he set the world record in Beijing at 9.69 seconds. At the world championships a year later, he lowered it to 9.58. Bolt and his coach, Glen Mills, both say a 100-metre run in the 9.4-second range is possible, but only if the weather in London co-operates. The forecast for Sunday night's final calls for murky skies with a 30 per cent chance of rain.

Beyond Bolt and Blake, nearly every main contender in the marquee event has a good story to tell. There are Americans Tyson Gay (oft-injured, still in search of an Olympic medal) and Justin Gatlin (2004 Olympic champion, back in 2012 after a four-year doping ban), and another Jamaican, 29-year-old Asafa Powell, a former world-record holder who is still fast, especially out of the blocks, but has been surpassed by his two younger countrymen over the past several years.

That's part of an ongoing duel between Jamaica and the United States. The showdown starts Friday with the opening heats of the women's 100, where Carmelita Jeter represents America's best chance to break the island nation's Olympic rule.

At Beijing in 2008, Jamaica swept the women's 100, with Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, Sherone Simpson and Kerron Stewart capturing the medals. Fraser-Pryce and Stewart are back, joined by Veronica Campbell-Brown, the grand dame (at age 30) of Jamaican sprints, a two-time champion in the 200 who has a chance at a 100-200 double.

"I do enjoy the rivalry," Campbell-Brown said. "It's great for the sport."

The sport could use a boost, frankly. Track and field has spent the past decade or so weighed down by its own problems — bad characters, vacated records and titles, the constant spectre of doping — and in jeopardy of becoming second-rate material. No better time than the present to return to prominence, and with the vacuum created at the London Games, this could be the chance.

"I hope when the Olympics come around, and we're on the big stage, people will take an interest in a story and want to keep following," said U.S. sprinter Allyson Felix, whose quest for her first Olympic title in the 200 after two silvers will also be worth watching. "It could bring some positive light onto track and field."

Since the Olympic cauldron began burning last week — it's now in the south end of the stadium — the Olympics have been filled with stops and starts, some good, some bad, but nothing transcendent.

Phelps did manage to become the most-decorated Olympian ever, as expected, but neither he nor U.S. teammate Ryan Lochte has been anywhere close to dominant.

In gymnastics, American Jordyn Wieber was considered the potential queen of her sport until she missed qualifying for the all-around, forcing her to settle simply for being another member of an all-star cast as the Americans won the team gold.

Actually, as it's turned out, the most talked-about sport early this week probably was badminton, of all things, because players were kicked out for apparently attempting to lose instead of win in an effort to get a more favourable spot in the next round.

What these Olympics really could use as they head to Week 2 is a jolt — dare we say a Bolt — of good news.

About a year ago, track fans might have pegged these Olympics as little more than a time trial and a chance to rewrite the record book for The World's Fastest Man, who also owns the 200 record of 19.19 and helped Jamaica's 4x100 relay team finish in 37.10, yet another new mark, in Beijing.

But things have changed.

First, there was the false start at the world championships last year. Bolt burst out of the blocks too early and instantly became the most high-profile victim of track's new zero-tolerance rule, which immediately disqualifies someone who jumps the gun, instead of issuing a warning to the full field on the first false start.

That DQ opened the door for Bolt's training partner, Blake. Any questions about his legitimacy as a world champion were answered this summer, when Blake faced Bolt and beat him not once, but twice, at Jamaica's Olympic trials.

"There's no pressure," said Blake, who was given his nickname of "The Beast" by none other than Bolt. "Yes, I'm the fastest man in the world right now and some people say I'm the man to beat, but when we're on the line, it's different."

Bolt, who was bad getting out of the blocks in the 100 in Kingston, later said he had hamstring problems related to a bad back. The biggest question heading into the Olympics is whether four weeks were enough for Bolt to work out the kinks.

"I don't really want to say he's vulnerable," Gay said. "Like I said several times, this guy has definitely proved he can run 9.5, 9.6, 9.7. He's the only guy who's been where we haven't been. I think he still has to be one of the favourites. He's the champion and knows what it takes to compete on this level."

While Bolt tries to cement his status in history, and Gay and the rest try to stop him, others will use the Olympics to conquer different goals.

For Oscar Pistorius, whose legs were amputated below the knee before he was a year old because he was born without fibulas, the Olympic quest has been mainly about competing on the same track as able-bodied athletes. The South African "Blade Runner" will line up in the 400 metres Saturday and become the first amputee to compete on the track at the Olympics.

"The dream of his was to be able to run with the able-bodied athletes, and he knew what he had to do to make that happen, time-wise, and he worked his butt off to get it," defending 400 champion LaShawn Merritt of the U.S. "He's here now."

As is Caster Semenya, the 800-metre runner who led her team into the stadium for the opening ceremonies as South Africa's flag-bearer. The 21-year-old will compete at her first Olympics, three years after a gender-test controversy that threatened her career and sidelined her from competition for nearly a year.

Semenya must wait until next Wednesday for her first race. A highlight of Day 1 on Friday, certainly for the British spectators, figures to be the heptathlon and their own Jessica Ennis, who was the 2009 world champion and 2011 world silver medallist .

She missed the 2008 Olympics because of a broken right foot and now bears the weight of plenty of expectations as she competes at home.

"I'm trying not to think about it too much," Ennis said, "because that again adds more pressure."


AP Sports Writers Pat Graham, Raf Casert and Gerald Imray contributed to this report.