Sprinter Takes Athletics Championships by Storm Germany Infected By 'Bolt Fever'

The record-breaking win by Usain Bolt in Berlin on Sunday has inflamed passions. Some local commentators are enthusiastic. But others have described the athlete's antics as a 'freak show' and are asking questions about the recent Jamaican doping scandal.

By Cathrin Schaer


Germany has been infected with what some are calling "Bolt fever" after Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt set a sensational new 100 metres world record of 9.58 seconds on Sunday night, winning gold at the 12th World Athletics Championship in Berlin.

Local media have come up with a range of new nicknames for the 22-year-old athlete: the Rasta-Racer, the Rocket Man, Bigger than Bob Marley, Blitz on the Blue Track and "the lightning bolt from another planet" who ran into "the other dimension," were just some of the German media's enthusiastic superlatives.

On the popular Heute Journal news show, respected journalist and anchorman Claus Kleber, a specialist in American-German relations who's better known for his coverage of serious current events than sports, surprised the show's estimated 4.5 million viewers by raising his arms and copying the lightning bolt sign that Bolt makes when he's engaging in trackside hijinks for the media.

The Germans also proclaimed themselves proud of their contribution to the 9.58 second victory that made Bolt the fastest man in the world. The Jamaican athlete is sponsored by German-based sportswear firm, Puma, and the high tech, size 47 running spikes especially made for the 1.83-meter tall (6-foot-5-inch) athlete are reportedly emblazoned with the slogan "Who Faster?"

Bolt Is A 'Freak Show'

But some found fault with the Jamaican sprinter. Mass circulation tabloid Bild called the sprinter the "fastest clown in the world" and came up with yet another nickname: Ko-Bolt. In German, a "Kobold" is an elf or a goblin. News magazine Stern was more critical, disparaging Bolt's over-the-top performance -- he played to cameras, blew the crowd kisses and made superman gestures as well as his lightning bolt victory pose -- as "a freak show."

And like others before them, the Rheinische Post, a newspaper based in Düsseldorf, speculated on the answer to the question, "how can anyone run that fast?"

"Five athletes from Jamaica's national team for the championships tested positive for the stimulant methylxanthine," they wrote. Two of them came from Bolt's own training group. And this is even though race officials say Bolt himself has tested negative many times.

Could Bolt Be Bigger Than American Athlete, Jesse Owens?

Of course the name of another track and field legend, former US Olympic medalist Jesse Owens, has also had multiple mentions this weekend. "There have always been talents that make a century's worth of impact," Thomas Bach, the vice president of the Olympic Committee, said after seeing Bolt's win firsthand in Berlin on the weekend. "We have already seen that here in this stadium, with Jesse Owens in 1936."

The World Athletic Championships is taking place inside Berlin's Olympic stadium; the building was designed by Albert Speer at Hitler's request for the 1936 Olympics. At that pre-WWII contest Jesse Owens made sporting history by winning four gold medals -- for the 100 meters, the 200 meters, the 4x100 meter relay and the long jump. Owens was particularly celebrated because, as a black man who demonstrated athletic superiority as well as grace and dignity in victory, he proved Hitler's theories -- and the prevailing segregationist attitudes in his homeland, America -- about racial inferiority wrong.

He Just Wants To Be A Legend

Obviously both countries have moved on in the intervening 73 years. But Owens has not been forgotten. Due to a joint effort between the International Association of Athletics Federations, the US Track and Field Team and the Berlin Organizing Committee, Owens' granddaughter, Marlene Dortch, has traveled to Berlin with the US team. At the end of the week, she will be presenting medals for the long jump together with Kai Long, the son of the German athlete Luz Long, who competed alongside her grandfather back in 1936. The two athletes became friendly after Long gave Owens advice on the long jump that many say influenced his performance and potentially led to his winning the gold medal in that event; Long himself came second in the long jump. Additionally, uniforms for the US team, who have not competed in any major sporting event in Berlin since Owen was here in 1936, all bear the initials "JO" above the heart.

One imagines that Usain Bolt would like to be remembered like this some day. He has already said that his show will go on this week. And while he may not be a long jumper, and therefore not be able to match Owens' achievements in that regard, the lanky Jamaican could still come close. At the Beijing Olympics in 2008, Bolt won in the other three disciplines that Owens did - the 100 meters, the 200 meters, the 4x100 meter relay. And he has already declared that he wants to repeat the performance here in Berlin. The 200 meters final will be run on Thursday and the relay finals on Saturday. As Bolt has said so many times, he isn't satisfied with just one win. The man wants to be a legend. And his legion of new German fans seems only too happy to collude with him on that.

The 12th World Championship in Athletics in Berlin finishes on August 23.

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