Farewell to the Human Rocket

Last Saturday, 5th August, at 21:45 GMT, eight men stepped to the line for the 100 metres final at the IAAF World Championships being held in London, England. It was scheduled to be the last competitive race of one of the greatest icons of the track and field world, the triple Olympic champion, Jamaican Usain Bolt.

It was the fitting location for Bolt’s farewell, since it was at the 1948 Olympic Games, in London, in August, that the world was introduced to the first models of the Jamaican sprint factory, in the forms of Arthur Wint and Herb McKenley, who occupied the first two steps of the podium, respectively, after the 400 metres final, with the former equalling the then Olympic record of 46.2 seconds. Wint followed up this performance, with the silver in the 800 metres. The world had been put on notice.

Four years later, in Helsinki, they were back. Wint won another silver in the 800 metres, finishing second again to the American Mal Whitfield, by 00:00:2 seconds, again leaving his kick down the backstretch too late.  George Rhoden and McKenley were attributed with the same time of 45.9 seconds in the 400 metres final, with Rhoden getting the nod for the gold.

McKenley also took silver in the 100 metres final, as all three medalists crossed the line in the same time of 10:4 seconds, as he became the first athlete to make all three Olympic sprint finals. McKenley had earlier accomplished this trifecta, at the 1950 Central America and Caribbean Games in Guatemala City in 1950 (two gold medals, one silver) and at the 1951 Pan American Games in Buenos Aires (three bronze).

The quartet of Wint, Les Laing, McKenley, and Rhoden produced an astounding performance in the 4 x 400 metres relay. McKenley, running the third leg, received the baton fifteen yards behind the 400 hurdles gold medalist, American Charley Moore, clocked a split of 44.6 seconds, the fastest ever run to that point, and passed the baton to the anchor leg, Rhoden, who maintained the two yard advantage he had been given, as the Jamaicans set a new Olympic and world record, with a time of 3:03:9.

The quartet would wait around for the Czech Emil Zatopek’ marathon victory to complete his historic treble, following his 5,000 and 10,000 metres wins, carrying him on a celebratory lap to the deafening applause of the crowd.

Although Jamaica’s fountain continued to sprout sprinters, it would be a while before they took the world stage by storm again. In 1968, in the rarefied air at the Mexico City Olympics, Lennox Miller took silver as American Jim Chines set a new standard for the 100 metres with a time of 9:95 seconds. It was at these Games the world was introduced to a modest and quiet Jamaican who would evoke the memories and standards of Wint and McKenley, Don Quarrie.

It was Quarrie who set the bar for Bolt to strive for as an upcoming athlete. In a career spanning five Olympic Games, he won medals in the 200 metres (gold/1976, Montreal), 100 metres (silver /1976), (bronze/1980 Moscow) and in the 4 x 100 metres relay (silver/1984, Los Angeles). Quarrie would also become one of the few athletes to hold both sprint records at the same time, clocking times of 9.9 and 19.8 seconds, both hand-timed. He completed the sprint double at the 1970 and 1974 Commonwealth Games, the first athlete to perform the feat, and did likewise at the 1971 Pan American Games.

After Quarrie, there seemed to be a Jamaican in contention for a sprint title at every event thereon. Bert Cameron, Grace Jackson, Raymond Stewart, Merlene Ottey, Asafa Powell to mention a few, not forgetting the other Jamaicans who rose to fame elsewhere, Linford Christie (Great Britain), Ben Johnson and Donovan Bailey (Canada). And then came Bolt.

At the 2002 World Junior Championships, held in Kingston, Jamaica, the uncertain fifteen year-old Usain Bolt put his shoes on the wrong feet, but once he overcame his initial nervousness, the gangly 6′ 5″ youth took the 200 metres gold medal in a time of 20.61 seconds, to become the youngest world junior gold medallist ever.

From thereon, the wins and accolades kept growing. The next year, he swept the competition at the Carifta Games, taking four gold medals, whilst erasing the 200 metres mark, and being voted as the outstanding athlete of the event. The same year, his last in high school, he raised the bar significantly in the 200 and 400 metres at his last high school championships, and three months later set the still standing World Youth 200 metres record at the Pan American Junior Championships. The world sat up and took notice, a new rocket was about to be launched.

Bolt’s long domination of the sprint double has been unprecedented in the history of sport. Like a true legend, he has risen to the occasion, the bigger it was, the better he ran. After struggling as a nineteen year-old at the 2004 Athens Olympics, he proceeded to make the sprint double his own at the next three Olympics, and at 2009, 2013 and 2015 IAAF World Championships, with only a false start in the 100 metres at the 2011 event, giving his opponents a chance for gold. It should be noted that Bolt still had to qualify for the Jamaican teams for these events against the likes of Powell, Yohan Blake, Michael Frater and Nesta Carter, world class sprinters in their own right.

Bolt is only one of three Olympic track and field athletes with eight gold medals, a ninth was lost after a teammate from the 2008 Olympic 4 x 100 relay team tested positive for performance enhancing drugs. In August, 2009, in Berlin, Germany, at the IAAF Worlds, he lowered the world record for the 100 metres, for the third time to 9.58, and four days later, on the 20th, he erased his 200 metre time of 19:30, with a new standard of 19:19. Along with his compatriots he has set three world records for the 4 x 100 metres relay, including the current standard of 36:84 seconds, set at the 2012 London Olympics.

At a time when track and field (and the sport world as a whole) has been smothered and embroiled in all kinds of bacchanal, to use a good Caribbean word, Usain Bolt has been like a fresh breeze blowing off the Blue Mountains of his native Jamaica.  He has tested clean throughout his entire career, and apart from rolling his car in 2009, an accident from which he walked away virtually unscathed, he has been as good a representative for the sport, his country and the region, as we can wish for.

Bolt has been blessed to be performing in an age as a professional, which has allowed him to earn an enormous salary and enjoy a jet set lifestyle. In April, he lost his close friend and fellow athlete, Jamaican-born former British Olympic silver medallist high jumper, Germaine Mason in an accident, and later admitted that he found hard it to train after the incident, he is human after all. He has indicated that he would like to stay close to the sport and assist with the training of young athletes.

In his last race, he was once again plagued by a poor start and couldn’t quite find his trademark mid-race acceleration, finishing third in a season best of 9:95 seconds, trailing the Americans, two-time drug cheat Justin Gatlin, 9:92 and new kid on the block, Christian Coleman, 9:94.  Bolt with his ever present luminous smile, was gracious in defeat, as the crowd booed Gatlin, who should never have been there in the first instance. What would the IAAF have done if he had lowered Bolt’s world record?

How fast was the rocket man? When he set the world record for 150 metres in 2009, he was clocked in 8.70 seconds over the last 100 metres, the fastest ever timing for a human being!

A statue of Bolt will soon join the ones of Wint, McKenley, Quarrie, the 1952 quartet in Jamaica. The rest of us can join in striking his trademark ‘To Di World’ lightning bolt salute, as we say Thank You, Usain Bolt, the likes of whom we are unlikely to see again in our lifetime.

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