Beijing:Tyson Gay, Usain Bolt and Asafa Powell remained on course for an epic three-way battle in track's marquee Olympic event, all easily advancing on Friday into the semifinals of the 100 meters.
Running in ideal conditions, Gay allayed fears that a lingering hamstring strain would affect his performance at the Beijing Games, coasting in both his heat and quarterfinal to go through.
The world champion injured his hamstring at the US trials six weeks ago and had not run competitively since, raising doubts about his fitness.
He finished second behind Richard Thompson of Trinidad and Tobago in his quarterfinal in 10.09 seconds, easing up well before the finishing line.
"I felt good and relaxed. I just wanted to make it through," Gay said.
No one was as awesome as Bolt, though. At the halfway mark the world record-holder from Jamaica eased up, looked left and right -- not once, but twice -- and with 9.92 still ran the fastest time ever in China.
Under the Olympic flame and with 91,000 at the Bird's Nest, he felt as confident and loose as his canary yellow shirt flapping in the still, humid air. If ever there was a man to beat for the title, it was this 21-year-old sprinter who burst onto the scene seemingly out of nowhere this season.
He was known for his 200 credentials and remains a favourite for that race, too. Unlike Gay, Bolt is going for a sprint double and, considering the strength of the Jamaican team, could end with three golds after the 4x100 relay.
Powell, who had been the world record holder coming into the season, also moved through with consummate ease, clocking 10.02 in the last of the quarterfinals.
To show the potential of tomorrow's final, the three together own the eight fastest times in history.
Even if he came through his races OK, Gay faces two more intense 100s in the next 24 hours, increasingly testing the physical resistance of his hamstring.
His last race had been a wind-aided 9.68, the fastest time ever -- even though it could not be ratified as a record.
In the 1,500, Kenyan-born American Bernard Lagat successfully set off on his quest for a 1,500-5,000 double, easily reaching the semifinals by finishing fourth in his opening heat. In the easiest leg of the double, he will face a slew of Kenyans and 2005 world champion Rashid Ramzi of Bahrain, who had the fastest qualifying time.
In its battle with China to top the overall medal standings, the US team will need any piece of precious metal it can get and the shot putters could add three by today.
"It's going to be an awesome event," said Adam Nelson, who threw 20.56 metres in qualifying despite a rib cage injury.
Christian Cantwell went through with 20.48 and world champion Reese Hoffa had 20.41.
Nelson hurt a muscle on Monday and complained about breathing difficulties.
"If I breathe or turn the wrong way, it bothers me," the silver medalist of the last two Olympics said.
Today's only other final is the women's 10,000 m, where world champion Tirunesh Dibaba is expected to give Ethiopia its first gold.
In the absence of Olympic and world champion Carolina Kluft of Sweden, the heptathlon is billed as a grudge match between Lyudmyla Blonska of Ukraine and Kelly Sotherton of Britain.
Blonska was banned for doping between 2003-05 but came back strongly since to take silver behind Kluft at last year's world championships, beating the Brit.
Sotherton has made no secret of her dislike of the Ukrainian, giving her the cold shoulder whenever possible.
The Briton had the best start to the seven-event competition, setting a time of 13.18 seconds in the 100 hurdles, holding off Blonska by .11 seconds.
In the high jump, Blonska closed the gap again, scaling 1.86 m compared to 1.83 for Sotherton.
The result left the Ukrainian with 2,132 points, while Sotherton had 2,113. Hyleas Fountain of the United States led the provisional standings with 2,251.
The shot put and 200 meters were set for later Friday. The competition wraps up tomorrow with the long jump, javelin and 800.
In the individual 800, Kenyans Pamela Jelimo and Janeth Jepkosgei breezed through into tomorrow's semifinals, easily winning their heats. The showdown between the two in Monday's final is one of the most anticipated races of the games.
As usual, Jepkosgei was a front-runner from the starting gun to dominate her heat.
"This is what I needed. I needed to know about my body," the world champion said.
Jelimo, who had dominated the season coming into Beijing, bided her time until the final lap before kicking to go through.
"I've done what I need to do. It's important just to be there at this moment," Jelimo said. "I'm through to the semifinals, that's the main thing."
Sydney 2000 Olympic champion Maria Mutola is in her final major competition before retiring at the end of the year, but still had the fastest qualifying time of 1:58.91.