Usain Bolt & Glasgow 2014: The life of a sprint superstar

(BBC) Whether or not Usain Bolt did get caught out criticising these Commonwealth Games – the reporter insists,the athlete vehemently denies – the subsequent headlines were another indication that life for the Jamaican sprinter is not like that for any other athlete.

Usain Bolt

Usain Bolt

Ever since that golden 12-month period from August 2008 to August 2009 – four major finals, four gold medals, four astonishing world records – Bolt has been a man out on his own, just as he was in carving up 100 metres in 9.58 seconds and 200m in 19.19.

Different league, different rules. Wherever Bolt goes, normal goes out of the window.

There is the big stuff: a million requests for the 80,000 tickets for 2012’s Olympic 100m final, an appearance fee 10 times that of his fellow sprinters, a sportswear sponsorship deal that reportedly pays him more than £2m a year in retirement, let alone the £6m each year while he is still running.

Then there is the day-to-day weirdness: being paraded round tracks before competitions astride a giant rocket, a world championships being halted so the entire stadium could sing him Happy Birthday, being asked about the Gaza crisis and Scottish independence in news conferences while posing alongside a giant anthropomorphic thistle.

What else sets him apart is how much he enjoys being the centre of such relentless attention.

One of the saddest aspects of Tiger Woods’s comparative fame is how miserable he makes being Tiger Woods appear. Bolt utilises that same weight of public pressure to drag out his best.

In the weeks before London 2012, he had been beaten by rivals and doubted by critics. By his own admission, he was only 95% fit. Then, at the centrepiece of the biggest sporting occasion on the planet, he ran the second fastest 100m of all time to retain his Olympic title in unprecedented style.

Just as in overcoming a naturally sluggish start and coping with an abnormal curvature of the spine which once made him injury-prone, Bolt has had to work on that ability to flourish in the spotlight.

As a precocious 15-year-old, it was almost too much for him. Going to the World Juniors in 2002 as the home-grown darling of the Kingston crowd, he was so intimidated by the expectations of his fellow Jamaicans that he broke down in tears and told his parents he wanted to pull out.

The footage of his victory, over rivals three years older and in physical maturity, is the moment the kid became the clowning man: crowd going crazy, Bolt – initially stunned – suddenly deciding to salute them, watching the delighted reaction and metamorphosing as he does so.

Bolt won Jamaica’s only individual gold at the 2002 World Juniors, winning the 200m in 20.61 seconds.

“That was, and will always be, my greatest moment,” he has said.

In the decade that has followed, Bolt has become a must-see show, a one-off marvel to catch before it is too late.

No matter that each performance may last less than 10 seconds. Unlike any other superstar sprinter, unlike Carl Lewis or Michael Johnson, he stretches a short into an epic – play-acting in his warm-up, talking to the TV cameras, posing on the blocks, dragging the stadium’s attention with him on laps of honour, borrowing phones to set up selfies and signing everything offered.

Because it is an experience to tell the grandchildren about, because there are a finite number of opportunities to witness the greatest athlete that has ever lived do what no athlete has ever done before, everyone wants to be involved.

Bolt was asked to pose for a “selfie” photograph by a journalist at his first news conference in Glasgow

How does he cope? On the road, as he is for most of an injury-free summer, he is shielded by long-time agent Ricky Simms, the 37-year-old Irishman who first met him just after those World Juniors.

It is close to Simms’ office in south-west London that Bolt usually bases himself in summer, training at Brunel University in Uxbridge and St Mary’s in Twickenham and using Heathrow airport for the short hops to big-money meets around Europe.

London being indifferent London, he can run without attention and pop into the Chinese takeaways of Teddington without being asked to sign more than the bill.

At home in Kingston he shares his five-bedroom house with his half-brother Sadiki and childhood best friend NJ. His PlayStation and Call of Duty provide an escape, the two men a comfort blanket of normality.

When even that gets too much, he goes back to the rural north-west of Jamaica and the tiny town of Sherwood Content, where he grew up and where parents Jennifer and Wellesley still live.

Out come the dominoes, out comes the Guinness. For a man who has made a living from doing the impossible, it is both mundane and understandable.

Being the fastest human being who ever lived can still be onerous. In the athletes’ village at big events, even surrounded by other world-class sportsmen, he is almost a prisoner of his room.

Here in Glasgow, as in London, he has not even been able to go to the canteen for food. “That’s nothing new,” admits Jamaican press attache Laurel Smith.

“He doesn’t want to create disturbance. So what the management team is basically instructed is that he has what they call in Jamaican terminology, a bagman.

“He will go first, check out what is on the menu, report back to Usain, he makes the selection and then the bagman goes down and gets it and brings it back to his room.

“Because if he goes in at particular times, the canteen would have a couple of hundred people and it would create a disturbance. They have to be very mindful of that so the best method is to get his bagman to bring his meal to his room.”

Bolt changed his sport. Without Usain there would be no Mobot, no Yohan Blake growing his nails and inserting plastic fangs as ‘the Beast’, no prime-time slots for a sport that had been on the decline.

Because Bolt, probably, saved his sport too. He came in after almost every record-breaking sprinter – Justin Gatlin, Marion Jones, Tim Montgomery – had been busted for doping. He stands clean as his rivals – Tyson Gay, Asafa Powell – go the same way.

Bolt has won six Olympic golds and eight at the World Championships

When he runs, promoters sell out stadiums. When he doesn’t, the fans stay away. The attendance at the Diamond League meet in Rome this year was 35,000 down on the year before. The reason? In 2013 Bolt was there; in 2014, he stayed at home.

The Bolt effect can be felt everywhere. It has made his rivals faster, according to a study that analysed every international 100m race since 1888. It changed the UK tax system, when Chancellor George Osborne granted a one-off amnesty to bring the Jamaican to last summer’s London Grand Prix. It has even boosted tourism to his home country.

“The impact of Bolt’s performance at the London Olympics will have an effect on the island for many years,” Jamaican tourism minister Wykeham McNeill has said.

It should be too much for a 27-year-old to take. But only once has he cracked, when he false-started at the 2011 World Championships under intense pressure from training-partner Blake.

There have been no sex scandals a la Woods, no gambling exposes of the sort that hit Michael Jordan.

Bolt is not Muhammad Ali. He has not taken the same radical political stance nor gambled his sporting career on a point of principle. Sport is different now. Few have.

But he has shared Ali’s ability to transcend his sport, and he has sucked in the world’s willing attention in just the same way. And he has done so with remarkably few problems.



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