Bolt: another 400 coming up

Usain Bolt runs into pain as hard graft begins for triple Olympic champion

It was like the Bird’s Nest stadium all over again. Twenty metres from the finish, and with his rivals labouring four or five strides behind him, he glanced up at the grandstand before slowing to a sedate jog as he crossed the line.

By Simon Hart in Kingston
Last Updated: 10:59PM GMT 16 Feb 2009

But this time there was a difference. Unlike the 100 metres final in Beijing, Usain Bolt’s sudden deceleration had nothing to do with showboating, and the only chest-thumping going on was his heart leaping out of his ribcage.

And as for the trademark drawing back of an imaginary bow and arrow to celebrate his victory, it looked more like an arrow had struck him between his shoulder blades as he slumped to the ground within seconds of finishing, his chest heaving, his face contorted in pain.

The world’s greatest athlete had shot his bolt.

There were two conclusions to be drawn from the triple Olympic champion’s distress at the end of his first competitive outing of the season – a 400 metres race won in 46.35 sec that was intended to build up his well of endurance before attention switches to the quicker stuff this summer.

First, he has a long way to go if he is to extend his mastery of the short sprints and challenge Michael Johnson’s 10-year-old 400m world record of 43.18 sec, despite all the talk about his physical stature being ideal for a quarter-miler. Second, all those gala dinners and award ceremonies have clearly taken their toll on his fitness.

Bolt admitted as much. Once he had recovered his breath, he conceded that the pain had been down to two of his least favourite words in the English language: lactic acid.

“That is one of the reasons why I don’t want to run 400s,” he said. “I’m not really fond of lactic acid. I’m not actually in the best of shape at the moment and I’m just happy I got through it.”

The occasion was Jamaica’s Camperdown Classic, an incongruously low-key meeting to be playing host to the fastest man on the planet, where upwards of 2,000 primary and high school children were running and jumping in the Saturday afternoon heat on the scruffy warm-up track adjacent to Kingston’s national stadium.

But the clue that this was no ordinary inter-school event was the crowd of children clustered around the entrance to a white marquee beside the track where a certain 6ft 5in 22-year-old sheltered from the sun with his training partners until, sandwiched between the boys’ 1500m and the girls’ 4 x 100m relay, the stadium MC summoned the competitors for the one event of the afternoon that was open to senior male athletes.

“And now the race we’ve all been waiting for. Welcome to the final of the men’s open 400 metres dash, sponsored by Dixie Lee Fried Chicken.”

Bolt’s presence in the all-Jamaican field had nothing to do with his well-documented penchant for chicken nuggets. Despite his dislike of the lactic-inducing 400m, it is the distance at which he always opens his season at this time of year, though he and his coach, Glen Mills, prefer to call it a training run rather than a competitive race.

“We don’t really regard this as opening the season,” said Mills. “We regard this as just another day of training. His season really opens at the Kingston International in May.”

Bolt has been back in full training since Jan 1 after several months of post-Olympic glad-handing and award-receiving, though Mills admits his athlete’s commitments away from the track have put him behind schedule.

“At this time of year we’re a bit behind where we were last year because of all the activities that he’s been doing, but we still have plenty of time to get through the work,” he said.

Those activities included yet another awards ceremony the night before Saturday’s race when, in an auditorium in central Kingston, Bolt was honoured as the Jamaican male sportsman of the year.

It was not exactly a surprise, with due respect to the short-listed footballer, Luton Shelton, formerly of Sheffield United but sold last year to Norway’s Valerenga. But it meant another late night for Bolt.

That will be the last of his public engagements for a while as he knuckles down to some hard graft. On Saturday’s evidence, it is much needed if he is to repeat his Olympic exploits at the World Championship in Berlin in August.

That, he said, was his primary target for the year rather than chasing improvements on his 100m and 200m world records. “Berlin is the main aim and if anything else comes along, I’ll be happy,” he said.

Bolt’s winning time on Saturday was more than a second outside his personal best and would have left him a stride behind ‘Blade Runner’ Oscar Pistorius last year, though it was not all gloom and doom. In fact, it was actually quicker than the 46.94 sec he posted in his season opener exactly a year ago, and we all know what happened after that.

The experience has at least cleared up one thing. Johnson’s 400m world record is not on Bolt’s radar for the foreseeable future.

“I’m not going to be doing the 400 this year,” said Bolt. “Definitely not. The plan has always been just to do a couple of 400s at the start of the season and then concentrate on the 100 and the 200.”

That will bring him back into collision with countryman Asafa Powell, American Tyson Gay and our very own Dwain Chambers, who has been making some pretty bold comments about giving him a run for his money in Berlin. Bolt was politely dismissive.

“It’s easy to talk about things,” he said. “If he thinks he can beat me then I’m looking forward to the challenge this season.”

It was time to dash. The MC was calling Bolt to his presentation ceremony, where he mounted a rickety podium to have a gold medal hung around his neck by the local boss of Dixie Lee Fried Chicken. The first of many in 2009, one suspects. As long as he can get rid of that lactic.

Man in a hurry

400 metres
On Saturday: 46.35 sec
Feb 2008: 46.9 sec in his first run of that season
Personal best: 45.35 sec (2003, aged 16, at the Junior Championships in Kingston)

200 metres
Beijing 2008 to win gold: 19.30 sec (world record)

100 metres
Beijing 2008 to win gold: 9.69 sec (world record)

Next challenge
Bolt is due to run the 400 metres again at the UWI Invitational in Kingston on Sunday