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FAST FRIEND

FOR YEARS, JAMAICAN SPRINTER YOHAN BLAKE HAS TRAINED ALONGSIDE THE WORLD’S FASTEST MAN, USAIN BOLT. NOW HIS FRIEND MAY BE THE ONLY PERSON STANDING BETWEEN HIM AND OLYMPIC GLORY

The night before the men's 100 metre final at the 2012 London Olympics, 22 year old Yohan Blake could not sleep. The following day's race would be the most important of his life: The young Jamaican was about to compete in his first Olympic final. Billions of people would be watching him try to beat his rivals in a burst of speed and power that would last less than 10 seconds. Blake kept getting up from his single bed and going to the bathroom, thinking over and over again, “Jesus, big race tomorrow.”

PHOTOGRAPHS BY ALINA EMRICH

By the time the sun rose on August 5, he was bleary-eyed and still had a whole day to get through until the race that evening. He watched a cricket match on TV, sitting alone amid the clothes and food cartons strewn across his room in the athletes’ village.

A shuttle bus came later that evening and took him to the main stadium, which was packed with tens of thousands of spectators. Blake had run here before, for the heats, but now, as the finalists stepped onto the track, the noise was deafening.

With the start of the race moments away, Blake and seven of the fastest men on the planet began stripping off their tracksuits. Blake, the youngest of the pack, looked tired, and the stadium’s floodlights illuminated the dark circles under his eyes.

The announcer began calling out the names of the sprinters as the TV cameras zoomed in on each of them. “Richard Thompson, Asafa Powell, Tyson Gay.…” Blake was bending over, adjusting his torn shorts; he had cut them with scissors, so they looked as if he had slashed them with his long fingernails— all part of an image intended to match his nickname, the Beast. As his name echoed around the stadium, he straightened up with a shoulder ripple he had cribbed from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” music video, then clawed at the camera, mouthing a roar. He glanced to his right and looked at his fellow Jamaican, Usain Bolt—the king of crowd-pleasers. This was the man everyone had come to see, not some nervous, young hopeful.

But Blake had reason to believe that, within the next few minutes, he could be the Olympic men’s 100-meter champion, snatching the title from Bolt.

Less than two months earlier, he had beaten him in the Jamaican team trials in both the 100-meter and 200-meter sprints. Bolt, who had won gold at both distances at the Beijing Games in 2008, held the world 100-meter and 200-meter records. But in 2012, Blake had run faster than anyone in the world.

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Rio de Janeiro is hosting the Summer Olympics and Paralympics at a difficult time in Brazil’s history. The carnival city is about to give the country something to smile about...
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