Rome, May 27: World record-holder Usain Bolt struggled to win his first race in nine months, clocking 9.91 seconds in the 100 meters to narrowly beat former record-holder Asafa Powell at the Golden Gala on Thursday.
Powell timed 9.93 and European champion Christophe Lemaitre crossed third in 10.00.
As usual, Bolt got out to a slow start but unlike in most of his recent races he was behind until pulling in front with his very last strides.
“I was nervous as it was my first race of the season and I didn't think it went well and the nerves got to me,” Bolt said. “In fact it was a totally bad race and I'm just pleased I won.”
Bolt had not competed since he was beaten by Tyson Gay in Stockholm last August, snapping the Jamaican's two-year unbeaten streak. The triple Olympic and world champion then ended his season because of back and Achilles' tendon problems.
Since Powell set a world record of 9.74 in Rieti, Italy, in 2007, Bolt has broken the mark three times, the last being a 9.58 at the 2009 world championships in Berlin.
Yet another Jamaican, Steve Mullings, still holds this year's best time -- 9.89 set in Clermont, Florida, five days ago.
Bolt has beaten Powell in nine of their 10 meetings, with Powell's only win coming in Stockholm in 2008.
“I tired toward the end and if I had kept it up I would have been the winner tonight. I think I was too worried by Usain at the end of the race,” Powell said. “I always said this was my race to win and I gave it away. I knew I could have won and I needed to stay focused and relaxed. I'm more confident now as I know I could have won.”
Lemaitre's personal best is 9.97.
“This was enormous,” Lemaitre said. “I was in contact with Bolt and Powell until 60-70 meters.”
In other events, American standout Allyson Felix improved her season-best time in the 400 while world champion Sanya Richards-Ross struggled to a fifth-place finish.
Felix is the three-time defending world champion in the 200 but has shown this year that she could be just as big a threat in the 400 at the worlds in Daegu, South Korea, in August.
Felix clocked 49.81 seconds to improve on the 50.33 she ran at this year's opening Diamond League meet in Doha, Qatar, this month.
Amantle Montsho of Botswana was the runner-up in 50.47 and Francena McCorory of the United States crossed third in 50.70 during a pleasant evening at Stadio Olimpico.
Richards-Ross, who missed most of last year with a quadriceps injury, clocked 50.98. She shook her head in disappointment at the finish, although she improved on the 51.62 she clocked in Kingston, Jamaica, this month.
“Today was tough,” Richards-Ross said. “I have been training really well, but I don't feel great in the later part of my races. But I've got a great coach and I am sure we will have things in place for the world championships.”
Felix won four of four Diamond League 400s last year but never broke the 50-second barrier.
Felix and Richards-Ross raced again 45 minutes later in the 200 but both were visibly tired, finishing fourth and fifth, respectively. Bianca Knight, another American sprinter, won in 22.64.
“It was fun and I knew it would be challenging, but I just wanted to make the effort,” Felix said. “At the world championships there's not the schedule like tonight, so we shall see what happens.”
This was the third meeting of the Diamond League circuit, with the next stop scheduled for Eugene, Oregon, on June 4.
LJ Van Zyl of South Africa won the men's 400 hurdles in 47.91 seconds to extend his impressive start to the season, while European champion David Greene of Britain was second in 48.24.
In Doha this month, Van Zyl beat last year's Diamond League race winner Bershawn Jackson.
“I changed a lot in my training this year. I finally feel like a real professional athlete,” Van Zyl said. “I sold my motorbike and I am more focused on sport now—having a diet and enough sleep.”
World champ Brittney Reese led the long jump with a season-best 6.94, while fellow American Funmi Jimoh—who beat Olympic champ Maurren Maggi in Doha—settled for second at 6.87.
Meanwhile, local favorite Andrew Howe of Italy got the crowd going by winning the 200 in 20.31 seconds. The 2007 long jump silver medalist, Howe is focusing on the 200 at the start of the season, but will compete only in the long jump at the worlds due to a schedule conflict. AP