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Linval Thompson and The Revolutionaries
Simon Burnton, Friday 13th July 2012 09:22
In 1980 Allan Wells's gold was cheapened by the absence of the Americans, who had boycotted the Moscow Olympics. Carl Lewis, champion in 1984, failed a drug test at the US Olympic trials four years later. Ben Johnson won what became known as The Dirtiest Race in History in 1988 only to test positive for the steroid stanozolol immediately afterwards.
Linford Christie, champion in 1992, narrowly avoided suspension after testing positive for pseudoephedrine four years earlier, and was found guilty of using nandrolone in 1999. Maurice Greene, who won in Sydney in 2000, later admitted buying (if not taking) performance-enhancing drugs. "My name is smeared in stuff that's going to make me look bad and ruin my name," he admitted. Then Justin Gatlin, gold medallist in Athens in 2004, failed a drug test in 2006 and was banned for four years.
Of seven winners over nearly 30 years of Olympic men's 100 metres finals only Donovan Bailey, successful in 1996, made it to retirement without his medal getting at least figuratively tarnished.
Through all of this, the event remained the single most anticipated contest of the Olympics. Though an amount of pro-British bias might have played its part, it is no coincidence that the stories of Wells, Lewis, Johnson, Christie and now Usain Bolt have all found their way into our list of stunning moments.
But those years of scandal – and more in the women's events, with the 100m and 200m champion at Sydney 2000, Marion Jones, actually ending up in prison, and suspicion lingering over Florence Griffith Joyner's miraculously fast and still unbeaten times in the same events in 1988 – undoubtedly had a negative impact on the reputation not just of sprinting, but of all sprinters.
And so to Beijing 2008, where the first week was dominated by one individual: Michael Phelps, who was busy collecting swimming gold medals like a drunk lining up cans of cheap cider. On the morning of 16 August, almost 12 hours before the 100m athletics final was to blast off in the Olympic Stadium, the American won his record-equalling seventh gold in the adjacent Water Cube.
By this stage, either individually or as a member of a relay team, he had set seven world records – more than every competitor at the Bird's Nest put together would manage – and the following day another gold and another record would complete his set. Throughout Olympic history the key events had taken place on the track or field of the main stadium; four years ago the eyes of the world were straying towards the swimming pool.
At that moment, perhaps more than any other, athletics as a sport desperately needed a popular, charismatic and scandal-free sprinting champion. That night it got Bolt.
"If you take Bolt out of those Olympics, track and field was horrible," said Michael Johnson, whose apparently unassailable 200m world record the Jamaican went on to destroy four days later. "You had a situation where swimming and gymnastics had surpassed track and field as the premier sports on TV. Now, because of Usain, track and field has a chance to regain the status it once had for the 2012 Games."
Being your sport's one-man salvation must be a lot of pressure for a 21-year-old to bear, but Bolt seemed entirely oblivious. It may be that those in charge of his sport reacted to Phelps' dramatic victory over Milorad Cavic in the 100m butterfly that morning with a degree of trepidation, but Bolt himself reacted to it by popping out for some chicken nuggets.
Bolt's admission that his race-day build-up involved two portions of nuggets and an afternoon kip added enormously to a legend first formed by his fleet of foot and breadth of grin. Nutritionists may tut, but the logic behind Bolt's menu choice seemed reasonable enough: you can't run if you've got the runs. "If I'm at a championship, like in Korea, Japan and these places where the food is not normal food [for me], I always have nuggets," he later explained. "So when I was in Beijing, I had nuggets. When I was in Daegu [for last year's World Championships], I had nuggets. When you eat what you know, your stomach won't get upset."
Bolt's 100m run was so thrilling, so astonishingly emphatic, so crushing yet also casual, that one Guardian writer in the Bird's Nest that night leapt to his feet and hugged his neighbour, drunk with incredulous glee. But as most of the world delighted in their gangly and gregarious young champion, a few people remained unmoved.
Blame Ben Johnson or any of the others in sprinting's hall of infamy, but some observers found it hard to shake off a sense of cynicism. Lewis, never shy of insinuating malfeasance in others, was among those who questioned the times Bolt and Jamaica's other sprinters had achieved (three of the eight finalists were Jamaican and, with Bolt running the penultimate leg, they went on to win the 4x100m by nearly a second).
"No country has had that kind of dominance," Lewis said. "I'm not saying they've done anything for certain. I don't know. When people ask me about Bolt, I say he could be the greatest athlete of all-time. But for someone to run 10.03 one year and 9.69 the next, if you don't question that in a sport that has the reputation it has right now, you're a fool."
Bolt countered. "The sport has been humiliated. People believe that anyone who runs fast is taking drugs," he said. "When people say that to me, I understand … all I have to do is stay clean, and over time the talk will stop."
Other observers believed that the premature celebrations, the posing for the cameras, the dancing and the nugget-munching were as much of a performance as any of the actual running that Bolt was involved in. These critics accepted his athletic achievements at face value, but felt that Bolt was engaged in a cynical attempt to construct the most sponsor-friendly persona possible, upon which he could cash in at his leisure after the Games.
And cash in he certainly has, to the tune – according to Forbes – of a little over £13m in the year to June 2012, making him the best-paid athlete of all time. He is a money-making machine: Virgin used him in its adverts and promptly experienced a 2.4% rise in revenue; he appeared in a series of ads for the Jamaica Tourist Board and visitor numbers increased 8.4%; last October his sportswear sponsor, Puma, credited him with a 10.2% boost to sales. "Usain Bolt has been a revelation for track and field athletics," said its chairman, Jochen Zeitz. "He's shined a global spotlight on the sport; his winning personality and phenomenal physical prowess are a unique combination. The way he both engages his fans and is energised by them has helped his popularity escalate to extraordinary levels."
If Bolt comes across as astonishingly laid-back and self-composed, his confidence is perhaps understandable. After all, at the thing that he does, the one, primordial, basic skill that he has honed – running fast – he is better than anyone else who ever tried.
"It is said that the population of the earth is 6.8 billion, and that approximately 107 billion have lived on this planet since man came into being," Bolt wrote in his autobiography. "It doesn't get any cooler than knowing you are the fastest of them all." And if that thought process doesn't instil a certain amount of cockiness in a young man, nothing will.
"I'm just trying to be true to my personality," Bolt says of his pre- and post-race theatrics. "This is what the sport needs and I think that is why the people love me so much." His behaviour certainly seems too well-established to be contrived, none of it coming as any surprise to those who watched the then 15-year-old establish himself with a series of showboating performances in 2002, fuelled by a diet of junk food and minimal training. First he destroyed his rivals at the Carifta (Caribbean Free Trade Association) Games in the Bahamas, winning four gold medals, then he took 200m gold and a couple of relay silvers at the IAAF World Junior Championships in Kingston, hamming it up in front of a delirious home crowd.
Over the year he whittled his personal best over 200m down from 21.73sec to 20.58, and over 400m from 48.28 to 47.12 (the following year he clocked 45.35). "I train hard but not as hard as you would expect from one doing such fast times at my age," he told one interviewer. Asked in July 2002, a month before his 16th birthday, about his diet, Bolt said: "I eat like a horse. I don't even know how I do it. I don't stick to a strict diet like most other athletes, I just eat whatever I can get my hands on – fried chicken, pizza, junk food. It's not a problem for me because I still perform."
He retained the world junior 200m title in 2003 but the next few years were disrupted by injury: he went to the 2004 Olympics but finished fifth in his 200m first-round heat, and at the following year's World Championships in Helsinki he reached the final but pulled a muscle and came last. At the 2007 Worlds in Osaka he came second, was called lazy by his coach and promised to buckle down.
Through all of this Bolt was totally ignoring the 100m. Already 6ft 4in in 2002 (he has grown another inch since), his coaches considered him too tall to succeed over the shorter distance, where his height would disadvantage him over the early phases of the race, the start and the drive – when athletes keep their heads down and their bodies hunched as they build up speed – leaving him not enough time to benefit from his massive stride in the final stages.
On 3 May 2008 he was entered in a 100m race in Kingston, little more than an exercise to work on his speed. In what was his third senior 100m race Bolt ran 9.76, the second fastest time in history. A fortnight later he ran "pretty bad" at the Hampton Games in Port of Spain, and still clocked 9.92. On 1 June, in his fifth 100m race, he ran 9.72 in New York, took the world record, announced that his preparations for the race had involved nothing but sleep "all day", and the rest is history. The IOC needed a new kind of 100m champion and one arrived, at the last minute, fully formed, as if delivered by a stork.
Because of his height Bolt needs to take fewer strides than any of his rivals to cover the distance – 41 in Beijing, where the other finalists used between 44 and 47. You would expect these enormous bounds to take much more time than his rivals' panicked paces but, critically and rather unfairly, they do not, hence his superiority.
Whether his success will lead to a generation of turbocharged beanpoles remains to be seen, but there is no doubt that it has come as a considerable blow to all those 5ft 11in sprinters who thought that they had been blessed with the perfect sprinting physique. "There are no words to describe him. He's like a created game person. He's like a cheat code. That's how good he is," said the American sprinter Darvis Patton, who finished last when Bolt smashed his own world record in Berlin in 2009.
"A lot of people are of the belief that you have to be short, strong and stocky to be a great sprinter and Usain Bolt has defied that," said Trinidad's Richard Thompson, who finished second in Beijing.
But Bolt's running still suffers from technical faults, most glaringly at the start. In the Beijing final only Churandy Martina reacted to the starter's pistol slower than the man who was about to set the world record. At the following year's World Championships in Berlin, Bolt was third slowest off the blocks, and again he broke the world record. Since then it seems the problem has got worse, if anything: at last year's World Championships in Daegu, South Korea, Bolt false-started and was disqualified; at this year's Jamaican National Championships Bolt struggled to take second place behind Yohan Blake after a dismal first 40m.
But if athletics needed Bolt in 2009, it needs him still. His disqualification in Daegu led to howls of complaint and talk of an immediate rule change (none happened). "I didn't really think they were going to kick him out," said the US sprinter Walter Dix. "I mean, they have him on every poster." Commercially, Bolt is more important than rules. Then there's the fact that his main rivals in London include Blake, who in 2009 tested positive for the mild stimulant methylhexanamine and was banned for three months, and the now-reinstated Gatlin, winner of the US trials. It's not just Bolt and his sponsors who will be grinning and dancing if he becomes the first man to cross the line first in successive Olympic 100m finals.
Although he is only 25, Bolt has described these Games as "the last chapter of my career". Should he retain the 100m title he says he "will have to retire because people will be sick of seeing me win", and plans to turn his attention to the long jump. First, there are a few more world records to beat, a few more gold medals – and endorsement deals – to secure.
"I'm working as hard as possible so I can go as fast as possible," he says. "They [the fans] want to see my personality, me enjoying it and doing crazy stuff, but they also want to see that [record-breaking] time," he said. "If I dominate the Olympics, I'll be a living legend. A living legend walking around. Sounds good."
To some, he is already there.
Thursday 21 August 2008
This time he remembered to do his shoelaces up. This time he ran hard all the way to the finish, looking neither to right nor left, and left out the extravagant look-at-me gestures. And this time he beat the most intimidating record in men's sprinting, one that those who were in Atlanta on an August night 12 years ago thought might stand for a lifetime.
Perhaps Usain Bolt had taken the criticisms to heart. Or perhaps, when he arrived in Beijing for the Games that will forever define his career, he was taking Michael Johnson's great 200m record more seriously than he needed to take his first target, his own 100m mark, set three months ago.
When he ran 9.72sec back in May, bettering Justin Gatlin's record by two hundredths of a second, he must have known that, on the right night and in the right conditions, he could go much faster. What happened in the Bird's Nest on Saturday night would have come as no surprise to him.
Confronting Johnson's epic achievement was another matter, however. The 200m is his distance, the one at which, aged 15, he became the youngest ever world junior champion. Earlier this year he managed to talk his coach, Glen Mills, into letting him run the 100m because he fancied it, but Mills has always thought that he is built for the longer distance – and even for the 400m, if only he were willing to do the work and endure the pain it would entail.
Considering that he has still to run the 100m a dozen times in competition, which makes him hardly even a novice, the results have been pretty respectable. The way in which he ran 9.69 the other night has made a record that traditionally comes down in hundredths look like a soft target. For him, at least. But when Johnson, on that electrifying Georgia night in 1996, settled into his unique shoulders-back style and persuaded his legs to whirr to a record of 19.32 for the 200m, a mark was established that might as well have been sealed in a lead casket and buried in an unmarked tomb.
Everyone knew Johnson was good, but amazement was the only possible reaction to an achievement that represented as much of a paradigm shift as Bob Beamon's 8.90m leap in Mexico City in 1968. Forget the late Florence Griffith Joyner and her tainted 100m and 200m records, which have stained the record books for the past 20 years and may last another 20. The fact that no one ever found it necessary to cast aspersions on what Johnson did is what made Bolt's mission last night a matter of such high seriousness.
Yes, he did a little dancehall steppin' in his lane before stripping off his tracksuit, and he repeated the now-famous archery mime before pointing again at the word "Jamaica" on his chest. But once he was down in the starting blocks, the concentration was total.
In his first appearances on the international scene it was often said that, at 6ft 5in, he had trouble with his starts because he needed to arrange his gangling limbs before hitting anything like a smooth stride. That has been emphatically disproved in Beijing, where his getaways have been things of near-perfection. At 0.182sec his reaction time last night was only the fifth fastest of the eight finalists, but within three or four strides he had begun to rip past the men on either side of him. When he came out of the bend, the contest was already over.
Once again he moved majestically into the distance, leaving the rest looking as though they were in a separate race. And now, inevitably, came the moment that had been so eagerly anticipated when we would see whether or not he intended make Saturday night's ebullient but premature celebrations a permanent feature of his performances.
The truth of it was there to be seen in the last dozen strides. Once more there was clear water, five metres of it, between Bolt and his nearest pursuer. But this time everything spoke of effort ratcheted up to the maximum. There was a grimace on his face, his fists were bunched tight, and he even dipped in the textbook manner as he crossed the line, striving to squeeze out the last hundredth of a second. And, by two hundredths, the record was his, along with the gold medal.
So now he becomes the ninth man in Olympic history to claim the 100m-200m double, following Archie Hahn (1904), Ralph Craig (1912), Percy Williams (1928), Eddie Tolan (1932), Jesse Owens (1936), Bobby Morrow (1956), Valeri Borzov (1972) and Carl Lewis (1984): six Americans, one Canadian, one citizen of the Soviet Union – and, now, a Jamaican. None of his predecessors, however, broke both world records in the process, and those times of 9.69 and 19.30 are the unassailable facts supporting the argument of anyone wishing to acclaim Usain Bolt, who turns 22 today, as the greatest sprinter of all time.
He will need to be around for a while longer, adding to his collection of medals and records, before the award of such a status is universally recognised. Over the past four days, however, under the world's gaze on the biggest stage available to any athlete, he has made his case.
Perhaps it is too much to hope that he has also banished the suspicions that have undermined the integrity of Olympic sprinting for so long. But when you look at him, at his 6ft 5in, 13st 8lb frame and at the articulation of his limbs as he devours the track, you might be forgiven for believing that he, more than any leading sprinter for several generations, might just be able to achieve such feats without artificial assistance. There is none of the sense of physical distortion created by the excess muscle that powered recent generations out of the blocks. He looks balanced and natural. Well, we can hope.