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The Sunday TimesJune 8, 2008
Usain Bolt is heading to Europe
The lightning-quick sprinter is heading for Europe with his sights on Michael Johnson’s 200m world recordAndrew Longmore
Having beaten the 100m world record in New York last weekend, Usain Bolt will head to Europe for a tilt at one of the true statistical monuments of his sport this week. Wisely, the 21-year-old promises nothing, but if the track is quick and the evening more Caribbean than mid-European, then Michael Johnson’s 200m record of 19.32sec, set on an unforgettable night in Atlanta 12 years ago, could be at the mercy of the giant Jamaican in Ostrava on Saturday.
“I always wait until the first 200m of the season, then I say what time I can do for the year,” said Bolt. If he applied the same principle to the 100m, his less-favoured discipline, there is no knowing where the clock might stop. At just after 11pm last Saturday on Randall’s Island, New York, Bolt blew through the rain in a scarcely believable time of 9.72sec (adjusted from an initial 9.71sec), clipping two-hundredths of a second off the world record held by his countryman, Asafa Powell. The next stop is a sub-9.70sec 100m, a mark which is both bewitching and, in the current climate of suspicion, deeply troubling.
In another tangled week for the sport, no sooner had the latest holder of the tag of fastest man on the planet been anointed than one of the previous holders was at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) trying to have a ban for a positive drugs test reduced on appeal. Justin Gatlin, the Olympic 100m champion who claimed to be a figurehead for a new and cleaner sport, lost his case and will not be able to return to athletics until 2010 after twice testing positive for steroids, the second time just weeks before he tied the world record in 2006.
The 26-year-old American has always protested his innocence, but the IAAF, the world governing body of athletics, wanted a lifetime ban. CAS also revised the start of his ban to July 2006. His run of 9.77sec in May of that year, which equalled Powell’s then record, has been scrubbed from the books. So add Gatlin to a list that includes Ben Johnson, Tim Mont-gomery, and Dwain Chambers.
It took just three questions at a conference with the world’s press last week before the full implications of his record hit the new holder. “We have had a lot of e-mails from our readers doubting the time and the performance after all the scandals that have marred the 100m these last few years,” said a Belgian journalist. “What would you like to say?”
Bolt mounted the only possible defence open to him. Look at my record, he said. “I’ve been running good since I was 15, so this is no surprise.” True enough. Despite Powell’s swift graduation into the front rank of sprinters, Bolt has always been regarded as the true prodigy among a gifted generation in Jamaica. He was a world junior 200m champion at the age of 15 and the only one to break 20 seconds. Though this was only the sixth competitive 100m race of his life, he had already given notice of his speed with a 9.92sec run in Trinidad in mid-May. “He came to me after that race and said, ‘The world record is there for me,’ ” said Glen Mills, his coach. But neither man anticipated quite how soon the prediction would become truth.
Maybe naivety is still rife and belief self-driven, but other positive indicators support Bolt’s claim to be clean. He has rejected the opportunity to further his athletic education in the tainted American system, preferring to stay in Kingston under the eye of Mills, his coach for the past four years. “I asked not to go overseas,” he said last week. “Really, I can’t live outside Jamaica. I get homesick and I’m not really a fan of cold weather either.” He has also, he admitted, started to understand the extent of his talent; in other words, to train more and party less. “You grow up, you see the bigger picture,” he said. “I have seen that a lot of hard work and dedication is needed if I want to become one of the best. So I decided, well, it is time that I change my ways, not everything, change little things in my personal life.”
He had also watched Powell, his long-time friend and training partner, move to the bigger houses further up the hill in Kingston on the back of his success in the 100m. It all sounds touchingly folksy and reassuringly plausible, not least because Bolt did not take the opportunity to peddle any religious conviction or put himself forward as a crusader for a new, drug-free era in sprinting. He would, he said, run against anyone if the opportunity arose, including Chambers, the disgraced British sprinter.
“That’s cool with me,” he said. “I go out there and just perform. As long as I’m scheduled to be at the meeting, it doesn’t really matter who else is there. I’m going to run. I’m happy with that. I try to lead by example, so I just stay clean and do my best when I get there.”
Bolt now has to decide whether to run the 100m and 200m at the Olympics, where he could meet Powell and Tyson Gay, the world champion at both distances. In the immediate aftermath of his world record, Bolt seemed intent on the idea, but last week he was leaving the choice to his coach. “I have been working hard on my 200m for years now,” he said. “I want to be one of the best 200m runners ever, but my coach says that he still hasn’t decided what to do.”
Bolt will double up at the Jamaican trials at the end of the month and it is inconceivable that he would turn down a chance to join the company of Carl Lewis and Valery Borzov as a double Olympic sprint champion. His nickname “Lightning” demands it, so will headline writers all over the world. How many more Bolts from the blue before Beijing?
Five keys to the Lightning Strike
THE START Bolt has been working on his start because at 6ft 5in he takes a long time to uncoil
CONFIDENCE Having already run 9.76sec, Bolt knew he was close to breaking Asafa Powell’s world record
RELAXATION Bolt listens to music before races and slept all day before breaking the world record in New York
LONG STRIDE Second to Bolt in New York, Tyson Gay admitted his rhythm had been broken by the Jamaican’s giant stride pattern
NO WEIGHTS ‘I am not really a fan of weight training. I just do enough’