FROM 10.30am yesterday, the crowds, the camera crews and the world's media started gathering on the grass banks of the sun-drenched Munrow Sports Centre track at the University of Birmingham.
They were all hoping to catch a glimpse of Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake duelling side by side in training ahead of the 100-metres head-to-head that promises to be the confrontation of the London Olympics. They were all to be disappointed. When the Jamaican track and field team's pre-Olympic open training session got under way at noon, the two speed merchants were nowhere to be seen. When it finished, two hours later, they were still conspicuously absent.
It was left to Michael Frater, the captain of the Jamaican athletics squad and a member of the world record-breaking Jamaican 4x100m relay teams at the 2008 Olympics and 2011 World Championships, to field the barrage of questions about his missing colleagues. Asked whether there might be a new Olympic 100m champion crowned in London on Sunday week, he paused for thought about the threat posed by Blake – who beat Bolt over 100m and 200m at the Jamaican trials – but came down on the side of the defending champ. "Usain Bolt is something phenomenal," Frater said. "I wouldn't bet against him."
Bolt and Blake have been in Birmingham for a week, training and living on the university campus, where special 7ft beds have been installed to accommodate the 6ft 5in Bolt. The pair are long-term training partners in the Racers Track Club sprint stable, coached by Glen Mills back home in Kingston and – despite their rivalry – they have been seen working out and socialising together on the campus in England's second city.
There has been much speculation about Bolt's form and fitness following his two losses to Blake at the domestic trials meeting last month but Don Quarrie, the technical manager of the Jamaican team, said: "I'm quite sure Usain is ready to roll. He's been on the track here. His recent performances are close to those he had before Beijing. That tells me he's going to be ready in London."
The sentiments of the 1976 Olympic 200m champion were echoed by Ludlow Watts, the overall manager of the Jamaican team. "By the time Usain gets to the Olympics, he'll be competition-fit," Watts said. "Sometimes in your preparations there may be certain disruptions, but I believe that Usain is adequately prepared.
"He's training very well and by 3 August we will see the real Usain Bolt. I am not aware of any niggles at the moment. I believe he's OK."
Whether Asafa Powell happens to be OK at present is another question. The former 100m world-record holder missed the recent London Grand Prix because of a groin injury and was another notable absentee from the Jamaican training session yesterday.
Frater, one of Powell's regular training partners, said: "I don't know how it's going. As far as I know, he's competing. If anything comes up there are quite a few guys waiting to step in." At the Beijing Olympics four years ago, Jamaica enjoyed a stranglehold of the sprint events, Bolt winning the 100m and 200m in world-record times and helping the men's 4x100m relay team (featuring Frater and Powell) to do the same.
"Right now, it's us against the world," Frater said. "We have a target on our back. Everyone is trying to take us down.
"The US in previous years had a target on their back and we took them down. Now it's us in that position. I think we're ready. I think we'll be able to handle everything anyone throws at us."