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NEWS FEATURE De Grasse revives Canada's sprint hopes in Rio - 20 years on By Paul Logothetis, dpa

Europe
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Twenty years on from Donovan Bailey‘s 100-metre gold in Atlanta, Canada finds itself believing a sprint medal is again possible with the sudden arrival of Andre De Grasse.

Montreal (dpa) - Canada‘s Olympic sprint hopes have been rejuvenated for the first time in 20 years with the sudden emergence of Andre De Grasse.

The 21-year-old Toronto native eased into the 100-metre semi-final with the third-quickest qualifying time, providing the perfect opportunity to size up two-time defending champion Usain Bolt ahead of Sunday‘s final.

The two sprinters will line up next to each other in the semi-final - Bolt, looking to cement his status as the greatest sprinter of all and De Grasse, the newcomer looking to make his mark.

"I hear he‘s not in the best shape, so I feel like this is a good chance for me to take him down," De Grasse said from Rio de Janeiro on Saturday.

"I feel like I‘m capable, if I can get out of the blocks. I think my top end speed is going to be able to hold if I can get out with him."

American rival Justin Gatlin was certainly impressed with de Grasse who already has a world championship bronze from last year.

"He‘s a good guy, man. You saw him last year, he tied for the bronze. You can‘t count a guy like that out. He‘s strong," Gatlin said.

De Grasse‘s relative inexperience may be his biggest asset on athletics greatest stage.

"The task at hand is not very daunting for him," the 1996 gold medallist Donovan Bailey said. "I think this is going to be quite easily actually. I think he‘s going to surprise people."

Not since Bailey blazed to the gold 20 years ago in Atlanta has Canada been in such prime position to medal.

And it‘s all because the basketball-crazed De Grasse - who is also competing in the 200-metre and 4x100 relay - was casually invited to run at a regional track meet by a friend almost four years ago.

De Grasse lined up without spikes, sporting baggy basketball shorts. He stood tall while his competitors performed the traditional crouch in the blocks ahead of the start.

But De Grasse‘s maiden sprint of 10.9-second run drew the attention of the athletics department at Coffeyville Community College in the United States.

In two years at the Kansas college, De Grasse re-wrote the school record books.

"He didn‘t know much about track and field when he got here," Coffeyville head track coach Dave Perry told dpa in a telephone interview. "But he blew away these guys that had been running their whole life. We knew as soon as we saw him run he was something special."

By his second season at Coffeyville, De Grasse was no longer a basketball groupie but a full-fledged track athlete who would go on to earn a full scholarship to the University of Southern California.

De Grasse completed a 100-200 double win at the 2015 NCAA Championship with impressive times of 9.75 and 19.58 seconds, respectively. He followed that up with a 100-200 double at the Pan American Games last year.

"I don‘t know of another case like Andre," Perry said. "I don‘t know many guys who picked up track in high school and then ran (that fast). He‘s still such a young kid in this discipline - it‘s really unheard of in this sport."

Following his Pan Am success, De Grasse went on to win bronze at the world championships where he caught the eye of Bolt. And Puma, too.

Puma signed the young Canadian to a unprecedented 11.25-million-dollar contract. Puma also represents the 29-year-old Bolt, who may be competing in his final Games.

After turning pro, De Grasse moved to Altis, an elite training centre in Phoenix where a new coach devised a new plan to take him to the top.

De Grasse‘s biggest weakness is his start. In Rio, he is focused on getting out of the blocks quick enough to stay with Bolt or American favourite Justin Gatlin.

"If he gets out with the field he‘s a very dangerous competition," said Perry, who does not expect De Grasse to be intimidated by his more experienced competition.

"Absolutely not. Him being young and new to the sport helps him in a way. Allows him to focus on him and not what‘s going on around him. Maybe others should be worried about what he‘s capable of."

De Grasse himself still smiles when he reflects on his own unexpected story.

"I definitely didn‘t expect it to come this fast. Definitely wouldn‘t have thought about this a year ago, even a couple of weeks ago," De Grasse said.

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