Usain Bolt is for the ages
Watching Usain Bolt, flanked by two fellow Jamaicans, leap onto the podium after his unprecedented defence of two sprint gold medals, it was clear that his arrival in the pantheon of Olympic legend owes as much to personal charisma as it does to athletic prowess. He is also an important national symbol whose victory comes on the heels of Jamaica’s 50th anniversary of Independence. While Bolt is the fourth Jamaican to win a sprint gold in the Olympics (after Ben Johnson, Donovan Bailey and Lynford Christie) he is the first to do so under Jamaican colours. It is fitting that Jamaica’s first homegrown triumph should come in the form of its greatest athlete. It is hard to imagine someone outrunning Bolt in this generation, or any other, but even if that were possible, could anyone establish pre-eminence with such panache and so much palpable joy?
Carl Lewis, whose sprint double at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics Bolt has now eclipsed, is a more typical specimen of the athletes who usually vie for the title of ‘world’s fastest man.’ Many of these are self-absorbed, humourless and hypersensitive. Bolt, by contrast, made little of his defeat at the Jamaican Olympic trials by his training partner (and double silver medalist) Yohan Blake. In fact it took Lewis’s repeated insults and insinuations about Jamaican sprinters to goad him into a rare moment of pique on Thursday night, when he told a reporter that he had “no respect” for Lewis and felt it was “really downgrading for another athlete to [accuse others of taking drugs]… I think he’s just looking for attention, really, because nobody really talks much about him.”
This should gall Lewis – who was once chosen as Sports Illustrated’s “Olympian of the Century” – but it is true that he had little to say about drugs until Ben Johnson began to run faster than him. Johnson’s subsequent disgrace appeared to vindicate Lewis’s objections completely until, in 2003, a former director of the US Olympic Committee’s drug control administration revealed that Lewis himself had tested positive for banned substances three times before the 1988 Olympics. Undeterred by that disclosure, Lewis told Sports Illustrated (after Bolt’s victories in Beijing) that: “Countries like Jamaica do not have a random programme, so they can go months without being tested. I’m not saying anyone is on anything, but everyone needs to be on a level playing field.”
The hard truth for any athlete who has cheated in the past, is that Bolt – one of the most carefully screened athletes in history – has chalked up the fastest races of all time on a completely level field. Along the way, he has also destroyed old myths about what a sprinter should look like – coaches thought he was far too tall – and moved the sport closer to its biomechanical limits than most thought possible. He has done all this with more charm, and chutzpah, than any athlete in living memory.
What commentators call the “Usain Bolt show” starts with light comedy during the pre-race warm-up (he administered a ‘royal wave’ before the 200m finals), followed by a blur of improbably long strides, and calm deceleration (when there is enough distance between him and the runner up), plus exuberant celebrations. Bolt runs like Viv Richards used to bat, with a casual, almost disdainful mastery over the competition. And, like Richards, he has shown all West Indians that we can be unbeatable if we are prepared to nurture our athletic talent with single-minded devotion, to compete at the highest level with an uncompromising sense of who we are, and to confidently stride out into the wider world to show what we can achieve on our own terms.