Usain Bolt – unquestionably the greatest of all time
Sunday, August 28, 2016
Usain St Leo Bolt is indisputably the greatest athlete of all time. His record nine gold medals in consecutive Olympic Games, his unrivalled world records in both the 100m and 200m races as well as the 4 x 100m relay attest to the phenomenon that he is.
In addition to his World Championships gold medals, his infectious personality and the fact that despite his successes he has remained rooted to his foundations, he will be remembered as the best example of a rich blend between greatness and humility – factors which complete the picture of a living legend in his own right. But who would have thought these achievements were possible, in view of his humble beginnings in Sherwood Content in Trelawny?
Born August 21, 1986, Usain spent much of his early life like any ordinary child – nothing particularly exceptional about his athletic prowess at that time. But the genius in him would soon be awakened, and before long he was recognised for his running ability. His school, William Knibb, was not well known for its athletic success at Boys’ Champs, but that did not stop his emergence to greatness.
Fast-forward to 2002, the year when Bolt – at 15 years and 300-plus days – became the youngest to win the gold medal at the World Junior level when he clocked 20.61 secs at the National Stadium in the 200m. He followed this by anchoring Jamaica’s 4 x 100m relay team to the silver medal, and then ran a brilliant leg in the 4 x 400m relay, which mined silver for Jamaica.
Between 2002 and 2004, Bolt was severely affected by injuries which caused considerable concern to those who identified the potential in him. By the first half of 2004, Bolt was running astonishing times at the age of 17. There were those who were convinced he was ready for the 2004 Olympics, while others – though not doubting his ability – questioned whether he would stand up to such intense competition against the background of his injuries.
The local track and field body, the JAAA, after very careful consideration, nominated him to compete in the 200m and submitted his name to the Jamaica Olympic Association (JOA).
The JOA is not in the habit of questioning nominations submitted to it for ratification, let alone rejecting any.
Considerable debate raged in the boardroom as to whether it was practical to expose this young athlete, still only 17, to the rigours of such demanding competition. The decision was made in his favour and Bolt was entered to run in the 200m.
So undistinguished was his first foray in an Olympics that some people are prone to forget that this is where he made his debut. Running in heat 4 of the 200m, Bolt finished 5th in a time of 21.05 secs. Compare that time with his 20.61 secs two years earlier at age 15, and one will understand why some people were convinced that the authorities had made a mistake in taking him to Athens.
There are those who blamed his loss on the gold chain he ran with clenched between his teeth. Fact is, Bolt did not really realise the extent of his potential at that time. In the Olympic Village, we had to climb some five flights of stairs to get to our residence. It was not uncommon to see the young athlete bolting from the top flight and landing on the bottom stair, or horsing around playing basketball or soccer. Certainly at that time he did not realise the gold that was in "them there" feet. As he did in Rio, Bolt celebrated a birthday in Athens – his 18th – and the team management arranged a cake for himself and Sherone Simpson, who also celebrated her birthday during the Games. Bolt was not the first team member to celebrate a birthday during an Olympic Games, but we must have known there were great things to come. It certainly was the first time we celebrated anyone’s birthday at the Olympics with a cake.
So were the expectations unrealistic? Let us look at what he had achieved between 2001 and 2004 and let us judge whether the right decision was made to take him to Athens.
2001 – 21.81 secs in the 200m, 48.28 secs in the 400m
2001 – 21.12 secs in the 200m, 47.33 secs in the 400m
2002 – 20.61 secs in the 200m, voted IAAF rising star for 2002. It is said that in the race he unknowingly put his spikes on the wrong feet, so nervous was he. This helps to explain his penchant for gimmicks and gesticulations whilst at the blocks for every race. It’s his relaxation therapy.
2003 Carifta Games – 4 gold medals
2003 World Youth – 20.40 secs in the 200m
2003 Boys’ Champs – 20.25 secs in the 200m, 45.35 secs in the 400m.
2003 – 20.13 secs in the 200m.
These were times he achieved while still 16+ and which Michael Johnson did not run until he was 20. He was indeed a boy in the company of men. His participation in the Athens Olympics was more than justified. He just did not realise where he was.
One could almost say the rest is history.
Between 2004 and 2007, Bolt had chequered experiences. Injury plagued him for much of the time, but in-between these setbacks he ran some fantastic times, signalling his permanence on the real world stage.
19.93 secs in the 200m at the Carifta Games – a world junior record.
2005 – 20.03 secs and then 19.99 secs under new coach Glen Mills in the 200m
2006 – 19.88 secs (200m) in Lausanne
And in 2007, 19.75 secs and 19.91 secs in the 200m as well as 10.03 secs in the 100m. What? The 100m? He had not run the 100m before. What was happening? What was this all about? Up to 2007, the year before Beijing, he had not run a competitive 100m.
By 2008, Bolt was gradually shifting focus from the 400m to the shorter sprints. The 400m was too much work in training.
In May 2008, Bolt ran 9.76 secs in the 100m, the second fastest legal time over the distance, and he followed this up a few weeks later in New York, breaking Asafa Powell’s world record in the event by running 9.72 secs. This was only his fifth competitive 100m race. Later in the year he was to run 19.67 secs in the 200m to break the national record again.
By then Bolt was far more focused, far more confident and far stronger, mentally and physically.
Beijing beckoned. As head of the delegation for Jamaica in those Games, I could not imagine a prouder moment for his teammates, the management personnel and Jamaica than to have witnessed history in the making, the turning point in Jamaica’s fortunes in the Olympic Games. Beijing was special.
In his electrifying gold medal run in the 100m, he ended the race on a canter with his shoe laces untied, several lengths in front of all opponents, having eased up in the last 15 metres, setting a new world record in the process. Time? 9.69 secs and that for a man who had only run a few 100m races prior to that.
Bolt went on to win the 200m – also in world record time – and then ran an electrifying leg to ease Jamaica to a third gold medal in the relay, also in world record time.
When I attended the Chef de Missions meeting in Beijing in 2007, a full year before the Olympics, very few Chinese had ever heard of Jamaica. The name Bob Marley triggered a thought on prompting, but the Chinese were largely unaware of Jamaica. After Bolt’s 2008 exploits, the Chinese needed no further prompting. It seemed that all one billion Chinese were now aware of Jamaica. "Jamaicans fast runners", "great runners", "fast, fast people" greeted the team everywhere we went.
The exploits of Bolt and the rest of the Jamaica team in Beijing set the stage for the dominance we are now seeing. That was the turning point. As Jamaicans we have become accustomed to excelling in the Olympic Games and one gets the sense that we have begun to take this for granted, expecting this to be repeated time and time again.
Amidst a very bad period for the sport, where several athletes – some of them prominent Americans – had been caught cheating, the World Anti-Doping Agency waged a major campaign against drug cheats in Beijing.
The Jamaican contingent felt itself targeted in this regard, as during the first five days, no fewer than 32 random drug tests were conducted on Jamaican team members, with Bolt and Powell being tested some three times over this period. Walking around the village in Beijing and in the public places, the question often asked by international reporters was: "Where did this Jamaican man come from ALL OF A SUDDEN?"
It took a simple listing of this great man’s achievements since 2002 (which I just happen always to have with me) to convince all and sundry that this Jamaican was indeed a phenomenon.
There is, of course, another side to Bolt that must be highlighted.
On his return, Bolt was honoured by the Jamaican Government as he was conferred the Order of Distinction for his achievements.
By the London Olympics in 2012, Bolt was already a legend. It was just a question of who would be second in the 100m and 200m.
Between Beijing and London, he obliterated both the 100m and the 200m world records. In Berlin at the World Championships in 2009, he clocked 9.58 secs in the 100m and 19.19 secs in the 200m to shatter his own marks.
Those achievements were so significant that he was given a 12-foot-high piece of the historic Berlin wall as evidence that he was capable of breaking down barriers hitherto considered insurmountable. His wins also triggered the donation of a section of the track, eventually leading to the construction of an eight-lane track similar to the Berlin track at the University of the West Indies where Bolt and his Racers teammates trained under the watchful eyes of coach Mills.
His performances leading up to the London Olympics of 2012 were again jaw-dropping. The expectations leading to the Games were understandably all about Usain Bolt, the world record holder and the fastest man on the planet.
If there was any doubt about the status that this man had achieved, they were erased on the day he arrived in the village from the training camp in Birmingham.
The Jamaican team arrived by bus at around 1.30 pm – lunchtime with a bunch of hungry athletes. The dining room is generally the first port of call on arrival in the village. Surrounded by a few of the biggest athletes, Bolt made his way to the dining room, hoping not to be identified too early, and sure enough the party, escort guards and all, reached the dining room (seating capacity 5,000 at any one time). When he was spotted three minutes after his arrival, pandemonium broke loose. All eating stopped, cellphones were whipped out for selfies and whatever else could be obtained. The dining room came to a virtual standstill, all eyes focused on the area where a massive commotion had grown into what appeared to be a riot. Usain the great had arrived.
The party – self-imposed guards and all – made a hasty retreat, after he had signed some 100 autographs or more. In a way, Usain has to be saved from himself. He is so conscious of his appeal that he finds it difficult to tell autograph hunters "no", and left to himself, he would be constantly mobbed just obliging fans as he likes to do.
The march to the Opening Ceremony was like nothing any experienced Olympian had ever witnessed. Usain was selected to carry the flag for the Jamaica team – an obvious and easy choice. Unlike previous Games where buses normally took the team to the stadium for the ceremony, athletes and officials had to make the roughly one-mile walk from the village to the stadium which was virtually next door.
Any doubts that Bolt would not want to carry the flag were erased when he was the first person to get dressed, and then proceeded to demonstrate his prowess at dancing with a relatively heavy flagpole strapped to his hip. The march to the stadium is normally a very organised parade, but when teams before and behind the Jamaican contingent heard that one Usain Bolt was carrying the Jamaican flag, they broke ranks and converged on the team to get a glimpse of Bolt, get a photo with him, shake his hands – whatever. This was my sixth Olympics and I had never ever witnessed such a dramatic turn of events in so short a time.
On one occasion, Usain went "missing". He had broken away from his self-appointed guards, and relief only came when we spotted him atop what looked like a life guard’s tower, showing off his now world-famous trademark pose. Whew! But his off-the-field class really showed when he was asked by the organisers if he would mind greeting a group of school children who we believe were from a school for the disabled, who were amongst the thousands lining the walkway to the stadium. We were reluctant to agree to this, but the big man said, "Children? Yes, of course!" and proceeded to escape his "bodyguards" and run the barriers touching wildly screaming children and signing a few autographs along the way. A more touching moment you will not find.
Rio: Three-peat, nine gold medals, the demolition of Gatlin, who some felt was Bolt’s nemesis, but whom he was always confident he would never allow to beat him again. Our hearts were in our mouths in 2015, but there was never any doubt in Rio, save for concerns about his injury. But we have learnt to trust Usain’s judgement. Usain will not race unless he is confident he is ready enough.
Rio proved that while he was not as prepared as he would have liked, his confidence will carry him through while destabilising his opponents.
The fact that no one left the stadium after the 4x100m relay was ample evidence that no one wanted to miss the opportunity to see the world’s greatest sprinter one last time on the Olympic stage.
Bolt has done it all. There are no more mountains to climb, and in any event they will become increasingly difficult with the passage of time. He will retire with his name and his legendary status intact. For most of us, he will etch his name in the history of sports as the greatest athlete of all time.