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Storm-soaked Jamaica cheers its Olympic runners

Sunday - 8/5/2012, 3:52pm  ET

By DAVID McFADDEN
Associated Press

KINGSTON, Jamaica (AP) - Even as Tropical Storm Ernesto lashed their country, Jamaicans gathered at the capital's national stadium Sunday to cheer on their country's powerhouse runners at the London Olympics.

Hundreds of people, many decked out in Jamaica's colors of green, black and gold, were at the Kingston stadium to watch the biggest duel of the games: two of their own, Usain Bolt vs. Yohan Blake, in the 100-meter dash on Sunday.

When Bolt cruised to a win in a semifinal that did not include Blake, the crowd cheered and danced before a screen.

Less than a minute later, a squall from Ernesto kicked up, sending spectators running for a nearby building for shelter. The screens were shut off as hundreds of Jamaican flags whipped in the wind.

The Caribbean island is a hothouse for producing sprinters and for weeks, Jamaicans have been enthusiastically debating whether Bolt or Blake will claim top honors.

"It's Bolt all the way for me. He's going to take it all," said Natalie Henningham, an accountant, watching at the stadium.

Nearby, George Russell shouted: "No way! Blake!"

The rest of the field, including Americans Tyson Gay, Justin Gatlin and another Jamaican, Asafa Powell, are barely getting a mention.

"Bolt all the way! The big man a go defend it! Blake have to settle for silver," Bernard Wolfe shouted in Jamaican patois to neighborhood buddies who were rooting for Blake in the Kingston community of Grant's Pen.

Blake, Bolt's countryman, workout partner and blisteringly fast rival, beat the Jamaican sensation in the 100- and 200-meter finals during the island's Olympic trials. Bolt's subsequent withdrawal from a meet in Monaco only added to the intrigue and set up the most anticipated storyline of the 2012 Games.

Jamaica is already in a party mood. It's celebrating its 50th anniversary of independence on Monday. Plus, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce has made it back-to-back Olympic titles in the women's 100 meters, an exciting way to start a historic weekend in Jamaica, which became independent of Britain in 1962.

A one-two by Bolt and Blake would be the icing on the cake in Jamaica, a high-spirited tropical island with a chronically sputtering economy.

The expectations are very high for Bolt, the 6-foot-5 sprinter with huge, loping strides who has repeatedly said he is seeking gold at the London Olympics in order to become a sporting legend.

He's been the country's biggest living icon almost from the moment he kicked off the Jamaican medals haul in Beijing at the 2008 Olympics with his world-record time of 9.69. He earned that record even after he lost time by mugging for the cameras with about 20 meters to go, stretching his arms out with palms up, then pounding his chest.

Bolt went on to win three gold medals and set three world records in the last Olympics, a staggering achievement.

This time around, the charismatic Bolt may be the favorite to win, but Blake poses a serious challenge.

The muscular sprinter nicknamed "The Beast" has a relentless devotion to training that has made him a huge star in his homeland. He's not intimidated by Bolt, who is some six inches taller.

"I'm hungry for a medal," Blake told reporters recently.


(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)