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Saluting athletic immortality

The Beijing exploit had resulted in his first gold medal at the Olympic Games and he would go on to win an additional eight Olympic gold medals, the last of which brought the house down in Rio de Janeiro.

I write this as a member of the vast television audience, which watched as he made his celebrated farewell walk around the Rio stadium, with his relay team members in tow, and bathed in the flashes of the thousands of cameras parked like sentinels around the track. It was a poignant moment for me, as a track fan, understanding the tremendous value of his gift not only to the sport, but also to Jamaica and to the world. Each pace he took around the stadium represented a kind of pulling down of the curtains on what has unquestionably been the most exhilarating career in the history of track and field’s modern era. And as ‘the big man’ gazed into the cameras, his boyish features dripping with the sweat of his exertion, it took me back…way back to where it all began.

It is just a smidgen over 16 years when as a lanky youngster he made an inauspicious entry into the world of track and field representing William Knibb High School at the Inter-secondary Schools’ Sports Association-sponsored Boys’ and Girls’ Championships (“Champs”). Usain himself recalled of his participation that he had overslept at the team’s base only to realise that the members of the team had departed for the National Stadium without him. From his own account, he ran to the stadium in time to line up with the other starters for his event, but the exertion had been too much and he finished in the cellars of the event and took no further part in that championships. In the years that were to follow, the lanky youngster from the district of Sherwood Content in Trelawny would rewrite the history books as far as sprinting was concerned.

Usain Bolt won his first Champs medal (silver) as a 15-year-old in the 200 metres in 2001 and would go on to stamp his class on the age group championships for the next three years, distinguishing himself as the pre-eminent schoolboy athlete in the island with records in the 200 metres (20.25secs) and in the 400 metres (45.35secs), but not before becoming the youngest world junior 200 metres champion at age 15 with a time of 20.61 seconds. Usain Bolt would dominate the regional Carifta Games, and at the Pan-American Junior Championships equalled the phenomenal American Roy “Robot” Martin’s 1985 record in the 200 metres of 21.13 seconds, immediately drawing the full attention of the American track public.

Track coaches and scouts from every nook and cranny in America and beyond started seeking out this youngster to headline their own faltering college track programmes. Mindful of the negative impact of such a programme on many a Jamaican youth, the Jamaican authorities hatched a plot to keep him at home, resulting in him being housed at the University of Technology, Jamaica, to train. Bolt, though, was not particularly fond of the rigorous training and chose to rely on his natural abilities for continued success. He would miss the World Championships in Paris after a bout with conjunctivitis derailed his programme, but was selected to run the 200 metres at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece, where he finished a distant sixth in his first-round heat and was eliminated. Typical of Jamaicans and their “waggonist” mentality, the local public quickly threw him to the curb, an experience that impacted him greatly and caused him to eventually pull up his socks.

Bolt used the experience to seek out the legendary Glen Mills at Racers Track Club for coaching direction, a decision that was to right-size his career and catapult him into the athletic stratosphere. Under Mills’ direction Bolt, between 2005 and 2007, re-earned the reputation as a formidable 200-metre runner and won his first major international medal, a bronze, at the IAAF World Championships in Stuttgart, Germany, with a 20.10-second clocking, and later copped his first senior medal, a silver, with a 19.96-second clocking behind Wallace Spearmon’s 19.87 at the IAAF World Championships in Athens, Greece. With a completely new attitude, he destroyed the legendary Donald Quarrie’s national record at Jamaica’s National Trials that year running 19.75, and attempted the 100 metres for the first time at a meet in Crete, winning in a respectable time of 10.03 seconds. He followed that up with a silver medal in the Osaka, Japan, IAAF World Championships behind Tyson Gay in a time of 19.91 seconds that same year.

The year 2008 opened all doors for the once gangling youngster, as he stopped the clock in only his second 100 metres at the Jamaican Invitational at 9.76 seconds. A few weeks later, at the Icahn Stadium in New York City, he silenced his critics with a world record 9.72 seconds over the distance at the Reebok Grand Prix. From then on the world took notice.

Usain Bolt would further improve his time over 100 metres at the world’s biggest stage, the Olympic Games in Beijing, China, where he stopped the clock at 9.69 seconds, leaving the world in a state of bewilderment as he drove away from the field by more than five metres, slapping his chest some metres from the tape in celebration of his victory. He would add the 200-metre title, also in world record time 19.30 seconds, and participated in the Jamaican team’s world record run in the 4×100-metre relay.

One year later, at the IAAF World Championships in Berlin, Germany, Usain Bolt produced an even more stupendous set of performances with world records of 9.58 seconds in the 100 metres and 19.19 seconds in the 200 metres. He has remained unbeaten in a major Championship since his Olympic heroics in 2008. His proclamation of his own greatness became reminiscent of one Cassius Marcellus Clay in February 1964 following his knockout of Sonny Liston to lift the world heavyweight boxing title at the tender age of 22. No one took Clay or his utterance seriously at the time, but Bolt had more than provided proof to his own claim. In the eight years since 2008, Usain St Leo Bolt has won an unprecedented nine gold medals at the Olympic Games and is the first sprinter to have won back-to-back gold medals in both sprints at three successive Olympics. He has garnered 13 gold medals at the IAAF World Championships and holds both the world and Olympic records in both the 100 and 200 metres, as well as the 4×100-metre relay.

Prior to 2008, the image of track and field had been dragged through the mud because of the use of performance-enhancing substances by athletes. Bolt, as a result, has become the most tested athlete in the sport and functions as the de facto poster child for running clean. His effusive personality, combined with his awesome talent, has endeared him to a global audience, and in this regard he has become the face of the sport as it struggles to restore its tarnished image. His presence fills stadia around the world, and in the process has resulted in increased earnings for other athletes. His image graces some of the finest brands in the world and he has led the earnings pool in the sport for the last six to eight years.

It is at home in Jamaica, though, that his impact is greatest. For Jamaicans, Usain St Leo Bolt epitomises the hopes and aspirations of a nation. His exploits on the field have become a motivation for the youth, and his phenomenal ability the pillars of the country’s athletics programme. He has not only built on the foundation created by Wint, McKenley, Quarrie and Ottey, but has significantly raised the interest nationally and internationally. His broad influence has caused major sporting goods companies to now target Jamaica for its talent potential and to pour millions of dollars into Jamaica’s programmes.

The scribes of the sport have dubbed 2008- 2016 the era of Bolt; and every Jamaican, every lover of track and field will express their gratification for having lived in this time. Rio de Janeiro may not have been the place he produced the promised world record, but it underlined the tremendous ability of a giant among mortals. It provided the finest stage from which Usain Bolt has moved from the mortal state of being the greatest, to that state of athletic immortality.

Richard Hugh Blackford is a self-taught artist, writer and social commentator.


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