The Saturday Interview: Mild-mannered Powell has world at his feet
By Sue Mott
(Filed: 23/07/2005)

The fastest man in the world (ever) only managed about 10 yards of the Crystal Palace track last night before keeling over with a groin injury. Asafa Powell, the mild-mannered Jamaican who has held the world record since June 14 this year, when he clocked 9.77sec for the 100 metres at the Olympic Stadium in Athens, failed in his bid to beat his arch-rival, the Olympic champion Justin Gatlin. But no world record fell. Powell is still the main man.

On your marks: Asafa Powell is the fastest person in the world and a decent young man with it
At least he retains the categorical record that he stripped from Tim Montgomery, who ran 9.78 three years ago. Montgomery, the US athlete still awaiting the result of a hearing into alleged doping offences, issued an immediate response to the Jamaican’s feat. “He is no longer a sprinter among other sprinters. He is the one who can’t afford to lose,” he challenged.

The intent was to induce fear and trepidation into the heart of a young man so free in his attitude that he still trains by running on grass in flat shoes, when the rest of his challengers are in highly scientific hot-house conditions, not to mention spikes. “What a shock,” said Montgomery when told of the record. What a blessing, the sport might say.

We could do with a less controversial record-holder than Montgomery, especially as Powell’s duel develops with Gatlin. The young American wants to be world record holder. Powell wants the Olympic title. This may be the beginning of a running storyline, if not last night, then perhaps at the upcoming World Championships.

The 100 metres is war in parallel lanes. It takes the stride of a gazelle, the size of a bullock and the heart of a warrior to win. It does not, you would think, take sweet self-effacement. The recent Olympic sprint champions of modern times are united in arrogance as well as muscle. Maurice Greene, Linford Christie, Carl Lewis - you might call them a lot of things, but shy isn’t one of them.

What on earth is Powell doing in there? The 22-year-old is positively bashful. The sixth son of two country pastors, he still attends church every Sunday, sometimes lending a musical hand on the bass guitar and drums. He had no idea he was a runner at school. He thought he was a footballer. Running is what you did into the penalty area, not as a career. Next thing you know he’s the world record holder. It all, appropriately, happened so fast. Perhaps he hasn’t had time to catch an ego.

He cannot quite rationalise it all. “Fastest man on the planet? It’s unbelievable,” he said, fastening widened eyes on his interlocutor over a huge plate of chicken and vegetables at City Hall this week where he was having his photo taken with the mayor, Ken Livingstone. "Even my friends still come up to me and say, ‘You - the fastest man on earth - I can’t believe this because we were all kids in high school together and yet look at you now.’ It is strange.

“D’you know they showed me the yearbook we made in our last year of high school. They said, ‘Here you are’, and there was my picture and my prediction that I wanted to be the fastest man in the world. Yes, it was funny. I looked very young in my school uniform.” He laughed as he does all the time, either to mask his embarrassment or reinforce his amiability.

"I didn’t even like running. It was just running. I didn’t know you could be a runner. I knew you could be a footballer. You went out and trained. You could be on a team. All I knew about running was that I could beat everyone, even the bigger boys, on sports day. I used to run away from all the guys and then wait for them. But I didn’t run any other time. I used to walk, very slowly, instead.

“It was my teacher, Mrs Fraser, who told me I could be a runner. I didn’t always do what my teachers told me. But this time I did.”

He also had a role model, his eldest brother Donovan - 11 years older, he thinks - who reached the 1999 World Indoor Championships 60m final. He looked up to his brother as would a toddler to a teenager. He admired all his brothers. The third in the series, Nigel, taught him music. But he has also endured his share of fraternal tragedy.

In 2002, his second-oldest brother, Michael, was shot dead. One bare statistic in Jamaica’s ever-rising murder rate, one familial calamity that affected him badly. It was compounded the next year by the illness and death of another of his brothers, Vaun. “I don’t know what happened with Michael,” he said vaguely. “But it was very sad and really scary. Both happened when I was running the national trials in Jamaica. It was really hard. I always remember it was June.” His devout religiosity was a comfort. “It helped me a lot. I grew up in the church. All my life. When I was in my mother’s stomach I was in the church. I just learned the right way of things from my parents.”

The Rev Cislyn Powell and the Rev William Powell are co-pastors of the church in Linstead and they trust him not to deviate from a virtuous path. "Every day, they come on the phone and they’re telling me, ‘Asafa, do this’ and ‘Asafa, do that.’ It is very important to keep up with their wishes. But it’s very difficult in the sports world. We’ve got some places in Jamaica and the type of crowd who go there are smokin’ ganga and all that stuff. It feels strange to me. I go because my friends are there, but sometimes I avoid goin’.

“It can be difficult because girls throw themselves at me, now that I’m well known and have a nice car.” You wonder what a nice boy like him does about girls like that. He laughed. “I just always keep my girlfriend in my car.” He doesn’t mean he garages her, merely that he takes her as an affectionate precaution against intruders on outings. “I don’t drink either. Mmm, maybe a little glass of Baileys now and again.”

It doesn’t sound like student life as we know it. He lives and trains on campus at Kingston University, unwilling to relocate to America as do so many of his compatriots. He is in a minority of approximately one for his weekly pilgrimage to church. He used to be teased. “Church-boy,” they called him, but such mockery has curiously ceased now. “Well, um, no one wants to tease me now because I’m doin’ well. There’s no point teasin’ me when they want to be like me.”

Who wouldn’t want to be like him in his homeland? It is certainly an aspiration that belongs to this particular Caribbean island. Jamaica has a habit of breeding the fastest sprinters in the world. Ben Johnson, the drug-fuelled, disqualified Olympic champion of 1988 was born there. Christie, the Olympic champion in Barcelona, was born there. Donovan Bailey, the 1996 Olympic champion, was born in Manchester, Jamaica.

In Powell’s case, the desire was backed by genetics though he has yet to discover to whom he is most indebted. “Both my mother and my father say the talent is theirs,” he said with a grin. “They both are takin’ the credit.”

He believes in a more mysterious hand. “God has everything to do with it. It wouldn’t be possible without him.” This lends him a definite equanimity, useful in times of stress. At the World Athletics Championships in Paris, 2003, while Jon Drummond, of the United States, was lying flat in full toddler tantrum after being disqualified from the 100m for false-starting, Powell was likewise penalised.

“But I took it very well,” he said mildly. “I thought, ‘Well, God just doesn’t want me to do it now. It just isn’t my time’. So I just went out of the stadium and started laughing with my friends. It’s not the end of the world.” He might have been tempted to think so after the Olympic final last year, when as one of the race favourites, he finished fifth.

Knowing onlookers would say he tied up with nerves. He prefers to call it “inexperience”. “I felt good on the start line. Everyone in the world was watching. The stadium was packed. They were all looking at me. It was exciting. A lot of things were running round my body. Like adrenalin. I think, in the end, I lost because I had run a little bit too fast in the earlier rounds. At the World Championships in Helsinki I’m just going to do enough to qualify and save more for the final.”

He wants that title. “Olympic title. World title. Commonwealth Games title. I want everything I can get,” he said.

We may need to get used to Powell. He will be 29 at the London Olympics in 2012 and intends to stick around. “God has a plan for me, so no point givin’ up. I’m not very aggressive in how I sell that plan because I’m a bit shy when it comes to public speakin’. I have to use my legs to run fast instead.”

In his blocks at the start of every race, he repeats the same mantra in his mind. “I can do things through Christ who gives me strength.” It is a formidable encouragement. So is his name. :cool: Asafa means “rising to the occasion”.
His ability to do so must be a great consolation to his parents. “Before I was born, they really wanted a girl,” he admitted. “Luckily, I don’t think they’re disappointed any more.”

Tks Kitkat, i already was a fan o Asafa ( who wasn´t ? ) but now that i´m sure he is a real son of god in his truly faith, well, now i have all the reasons to say:
Tk god !! Tk god we on sprint world have this young and good guy as a example for the kids that are coming for this wonderfull sport.
I´m a member of a “christ cell” where we, some athletes ( mostly soccer players like Kaká, Lucio and Roberto Carlos ) used to reunite on saturdays to pray then watch and comment some sports program on TV. So, after Asafas WR i was always thinking about:
–I´m all sure Asafa is a christian brother but i won´t talk anything here on cell group until i´m sure about this.–
Now, i´m anxious for the next meet, where i´ll talk to everybody about this article. Actualy, i´ll try to translate each word of this text to say exactly what they say about Asafas life.
Thank you very much Kitkat1,
you bring me more happiness 4 this coming week.
Peace !!