The world’s fastest man | Usain Bolt dominated the Beijing 2008 Olympics in a show of speed unparalleled in the history of the modern Olympic Games. (Image | New York Times)

While the Olympics is often the setting for breathtaking dominance (Jesse Owens in 1936, Mark Spitz in 1974, Carl Lewis in 1984 plus Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps in 2008), there is nothing like a great sporting rivalry. Watching one great athlete in action is a treat, but seeing them competing against an equal makes for compelling sport. Excellence is a special thing. Excellence combined with drama creates must-see television. Bolt, for example, is a sight to behold when in full flow. However, knowing that there is a realistic chance that he will not win gold adds a delicious frisson to the 100m.

Make no mistake, hanging the gold medal around Bolt’s neck at this stage is foolhardy. The form sprinter is not the reigning Olympic champion – it is his friend and team mate, Yohan Blake. Those who claimed that Blake’s victory in last year’s World Championships should come with an asterisk have been made to appear rather silly over the past 12 months.

While Bolt’s disqualification from the 100m in Daegu left the path clear for Blake to win his first global sprint title, the man dubbed “the beast” has been on a steady upward curve. He ran the second fastest 200m in history at the end of the last track and field season and in the Jamaican trials, Blake beat Bolt in both the 100m and 200m races, Bolt’s preferred event.

He’s back | Bad boy Justin Gatlin looks set to make his comeback at the London 2012 Olympic Games, but will he be welcomed by fans? (Image | Trial X)

We then have the event’s pantomime villain to contend with. America’s Justin Gatlin was once the darling of the track, winning the 100m gold at the Athens 2004 Olympics and becoming world champion at the same distance a year later. However, not long after equalling the (then) word record, Gatlin tested positive for a banned substance in 2006. He was banned for eight years, before having this reduced to four years on appeal. Now he is back, and a major threat to his rivals after winning the American trials in qualifying for London 2012.

What makes Gatlin a target of regular contempt is that 2006 was his second positive test for a performance enhancing drug. Both times he pleaded his innocence, and he has, at least in the eyes of some, been treated with leniency. The possibility of Gatlin triumphing in the Olympic Stadium is something many fans are unwilling to countenance.

There is, however, no denying that he has been in fine form this season and his talent cannot be taken lightly. When you add former world champion Tyson Gay and ex-world record holder Asafa Powell into the mix, you have five men all with a genuine chance of winning the gold. For more than the usual reasons, the men’s 100m final is the one event at the Games not to be missed.

More of these, please | Rebecca Adlington’s clash in the pool with Lotte Friis has been heavily anticipated and is undoubtedly the highlight of day two. (Image | The Guardian)

The clashes do not end, and have not ended there. In the pool tonight Rebecca Adlington takes on Lotte Friis, following Ryan Lochte‘s thrashing of a hapless Michael Phelps last night. Moving to the Velodrome, fans will see Victoria Pendleton‘s last stand as she takes on Anna Meares for one final time before retirement. The enmity between the two is hardly a secret and the legacy of both could depend on the outcome of the women’s sprint event.

Every one of these examples puts a unique demand on each athlete, and it is a demand that can be conducive to greatness. After all, what would Sebastian Coe have been without Steve Ovett? What would Muhammad Ali have been without Joe Frazier, or Captain Ahab without Moby Dick?

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