24 August 2008

Yesterday Usain Bolt was modesty itself. Dutifully attending a sponsor’s briefing in downtown Beijing, he opined: “I wouldn’t say I was a phenomenon. I would just say I was a great athlete.”

So, that’s it then? After seeing him last week, the words are not enough. The second time was a bit easier on the brain, the first was just too much for the eyes to take. Bolt at full gallop in the stadium – who could ever think you could write the phrase “forget Michael Phelps” – but the Jamaican’s record-breaking 100 and 200 metres were the defining images of Beijing 2008.

The 100m last Saturday was the most extraordinary individual piece of athleticism that I ever expected to see. Positioned half-way down the track there didn’t seem to be much difference between the runners for the first few metres, and then suddenly Bolt appeared to be in an entirely different gear. In a few mighty strides he had left the world’s best trailing in his wake and then freewheeled in, waving to the crowd. You didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

In view of sprinting’s rancid recent image the first instinct was to not believe him. To break a world record that easily suggested chemical manipulations that would end in tears. The Games’ most iconic image would at once, like that of Ben Johnson in Seoul, become its most infamous too. If that proved to be true the very future of athletics itself would be in question. It was with heavy hearts that we went down to the chaotic sweaty scrum that is the mixed zone, through which athletes have to thread to get to the dressing room.

With no Bolt in sight, there was a huddle around an elderly man in a green Jamaica shirt. The name on his laminated pass was Dr Herb Elliott, but from the sound of his voice it was fairly evident that he was no relation to Australia’s greatest-ever runner who was 70 this February. But this Herb was obviously taking the flak head on. “Suspicious,” he was saying in ringing Caribbean tones. “They might say it is suspicious and maybe I might say to them ‘come and see our programme, come down and see our testing, come down and see how we operate, any time day or night. We have nothing to hide’.”

Dr Elliott, who was an athlete before becoming part of the Jamaican set-up, related how he had first seen the young Bolt as a lanky but brilliant 13-year-old burning up the grass at his local town of Trelawny; how we should remember that he ran a 19.93sec 200m to win the World Junior Championships when still only 15. Dr Herb told how athletics was a true national sport in Jamaica and even explained that as a sprinter hits top speed after 40m the end is “an optical illusion”, everyone is slowing down. “Check the bio-mechanics,” he said, “this boy can just run fast.”

The old boy was convincing but he was as nothing compared to the man himself – on the track and off it. In the 200 he was all business: Bolt knew the comparison was with Michael Johnson, and every stride he took showed how anxious he was to make it. I will never forget how Johnson rocketed off the bend at Atlanta and how the world-record figures 19.32 flashed up on the screen afterwards. Now Bolt was after him. Not a trace of showboating as those long legs rewrote the record books, and it seemed only right that it should, at 19.30, be under the Johnson time.

Downstairs it was even more chaotic than before. This time the huddle was around Bertrand Cameron, the Jamaican 400m coach. “I first saw Usain when he was 12 running 52 flat for 400 metres on the grass,” he said. “He just loved to run. He is never going to leave Jamaica. He is setting an example to young children that there is something different from crime. And we don’t worry about Bolt and drugs. No sir.”

Then, as again on Friday, it was into the press conference. Bolt made his customary laid-back jokes about sleeping and eating nuggets. Then he went serious: “I have always loved the 200 metres. I wanted to go for this record. I blew my mind and I blew the world’s mind.”

In the space of one week Usain Bolt has become the most magnetically exciting sportsman on the planet.

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