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Andre De Grasse aims to dethrone Usain Bolt in his farewell season

Canadian sprinter Andre De Grasse is pictured in Vancouver, B.C., on Tuesday June 27, 2017. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Last summer, at the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, the master-and-apprentice bond between sprinters Usain Bolt and Andre De Grasse was cheered as the two repeatedly vied against each other – but Bolt’s reign as the undisputed king was never in question.

This year, Bolt is in his final season on the track, a calendar dotted with only a few races. He turns 31 in August, several weeks after the world championship in London. Bolt has never lost a major 100-metre final. In London, however, 22-year-old De Grasse aims to usurp Bolt’s top spot.

“He wants to send out Usain, as much as a legend as he is, on a loss – no question,” said Stuart McMillan, De Grasse’s coach.

The master-apprentice dynamic has evolved. The sheen of chumminess has faded. In Rio, Bolt adopted De Grasse as a kind-of heir apparent. Now, Bolt is cagier, attuned to a potential threat. He launched to global fame in the 100 metres at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 with a gold medal and a world record. He plans to end his long run in London with one last gold.

De Grasse is in Vancouver this week, and on Wednesday night he stars at the Harry Jerome International Track Classic, billed as a “launch pad to London.” De Grasse is confident as he approaches London. Earlier this month, before a Diamond League meet in Rome, he declared he had a “great chance” to win the 100-metre world championship. Soon after, at a Diamond League race in Stockholm, De Grasse ran a blistering, but wind-aided, time of 9.69 seconds.

Bolt this week is half a world away from Vancouver. He is also set to race on Wednesday at a meet in Ostrava, Czech Republic, where he’s run almost every year since his youth.

Asked on Monday about being challenged by De Grasse, Bolt responded: “I am the fastest man in the world.” Of De Grasse’s wind-aided 9.69, Bolt said, “The possibility with a strong tailwind is endless.” Of potential heirs to his nearly decade-long dominance, he said, “There’s a lot of stars coming up.”

De Grasse is poised. In Vancouver, his aim is modest, to break 10 seconds, part of an arc of races ahead of London. The Canadian track and field championship follows next week in Ottawa.

At a Tuesday news conference, Robert Esmie said De Grasse could win in London. Esmie, one of the four Canadian sprinters who won gold in the 4×100-metres relay at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, conducted a short interview with De Grasse.

“You woke him up,” Esmie said of Bolt and De Grasse’s recent 9.69. “I feel like you’re capable of winning that gold medal at the world championships. Trust me. He’s going to have to work for it.”

De Grasse smiled his easy smile. “We’re going to see. We’re going to see.”

Esmie then referenced Bolt’s stature: 6 foot 5. De Grasse said, of his own confidence on the track: “I feel like I’m seven foot out there.”

“Beautiful, beautiful,” Esmie said. “You’ve got all the right answers.”

De Grasse has the requisite confidence, his coach said.

“Bolt, he has that supreme confidence,” McMillan said. “Every time he goes on the track, he knows he’s going to win. Going back a generation, Donovan [Bailey] was similar. There was no question in Donovan’s mind. And Andre has the same.”

De Grasse remains the apprentice. He’s the one with everything to prove. Two years ago, he announced himself with a bronze medal in the 100 metres at the world championship in Beijing, where Bolt won gold, narrowly ahead of Justin Gatlin. It was the same three last summer in Rio: Bolt first, Gatlin second, De Grasse third.

De Grasse, at 22, is now around the age Bolt was when Bolt ran his greatest races back in 2008 and 2009.

“Everyone knows he’s slowing down a little bit – he’s getting older – but he’s still the man,” De Grasse said to reporters in Vancouver.

“In order for me to have people stop talking about it, I’ve got to go out there and beat him.”

There will be only one final showdown, in London. It’s set for the second day of the world championship, Aug. 5, a Saturday night.

Both De Grasse and McMillan feel primed – especially of soon breaking the long-standing Canadian record of 9.84 seconds. But beating Bolt remains something far different, something thus far beyond the reach of all challengers.

“I have to go out there and prove it,” De Grasse said. Not silver, not bronze. It has to be gold, De Grasse said, “if I want to prove I’m the fastest man in the world.”