By Alexander Osang
It isn't easy to understand how one out of 7 billion people can run so much faster than everyone else -- and sometimes even with untied shoelaces. And, of course, it's also astonishing that a country as small as Jamaica produces so many champion sprinters. In fact, all Olympic medals in the 100- and 200-meter races could theoretically go to Jamaicans.
While some are quick to suspect doping, there are various theories in Jamaica about why its sprinters are so fast.
Donald Quarrie believes in healthy nutrition. Quarrie was an Olympic champion in Montreal in 1976, and his monument stands in front of the stadium in Kingston, even though he's still alive. He's wearing a casual shirt as he sits in the VIP stand at the qualification games for the most modern Olympic Games in human history, talking about the water pumps he used to run to as a child. The good runners, he says, are all from rural areas where children have to walk long distances to school, eat healthy food and drink water instead of soft drinks.
"In America, everyone wants to be a baseball or football player. But, here, every kid dreams of being a star sprinter," Quarrie says. One could also say that there are few long-distance runners. Only two runners ran in the 10,000-meter elimination race in Kingston, and one of them was from New York.
Wilton Peart, on the other hand, believes in the power of training on grass. The 38-year-old has won the 100 meters in the senior class in Kingston. He was once a professional athlete, but he wasn't a great talent. He says he loves running. He runs in the evenings after work, on the grass and in the moonlight. Running on grass strengthens the muscles, Peart says, pointing out that Bolt also started out on grass. In fact, Jamaica has only five all-weather synthetic tracks. Poverty, Peart notes, is a great motivator.
'A Special Aura'
There is a grass track at William Knibb High School, which Bolt attended until he was 18. It looks a bit frayed, burnt by the sun and with the tracks marked with old oil. Sports instructor Yeonkeo McKay is standing next to the track, talking about how Bolt serves as a role model for young runners. His equipment sponsor, Puma, provides sports gear for every athlete in his school, McKay says, adding that Bolt is important to the country's future.
McKay ran against Bolt once. He was 17 and Bolt was 18.
"He had this special aura," says McKay. "You could see that he was going to win."
Grass, moonlight, water pumps and a special aura. There are also Jamaicans who claim that Bolt is so fast because he has scoliosis. Others say that he often had to run away, as a boy, because he got himself in so much trouble. In fact, one could probably find someone in Jamaica who would be willing to swear that Bolt, as a young boy, fell into a tub filled with a magic potion.
For his part, Bolt says that he owes his performance to his coach, Glen Mills. Mills understands his body and his soul, he says. After his slow race in Ostrava, Bolt talked about his inexplicably tired legs and his empty head as if they weren't even part of his body. He said that his coach would watch the videos of the race on YouTube and tell him what to change. Coach Mills rarely accompanies his protégé on foreign trips. He supposedly doesn't like to travel.
Watching him in the warm-up zone behind the stadium, it would appear that Mills isn't all that interested in his athletes. His protégés, Blake and Bolt, currently the world's two fastest men, complete their short sprints, high-knee runs and stretches. Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, an Olympic favorite, jogs along the track, her back arched and her muscular stomach sticking out. Mills is just standing there, looking at the evening sky, a small, chubby, bald man with a lopsided look. He looks more like a doctor than a trainer.
What's his secret?
"I hear you're from an investigative magazine," Mills says, looking as if he had just pronounced a curse. "Believe me, you won't find any secrets here."
A Living Legend
The more attention we pay to Bolt, the more inaccessible he seems to become. We also don't get any closer to him when we drive along a long, winding road from Kingston to his hometown, Sherwood Content. The roads become narrower and more potholed until they eventually dissolve in the tropical rainforest, where vines slap against the roof of the car. The forest finally opens up to reveal a small village with a few wooden houses, a lot of goats and the school Bolt attended as a child. It's a hot and quiet afternoon, and the students went home long ago. Behind the first door we open, we find Mamrie Flash, an old woman who used to be Bolt's sports instructor. She has been retired for a long time, but now she's sitting in his school as if she were part of an exhibit about his life.
Usain was always a fast boy, Flash says. He always visits her when he's in the village. He hasn't forgotten his roots. Flash shows us a sticker from Bolt's sponsor Digicel, which renovated the school. If we want to know more about his relationship with the fastest man in the world, she says, we should read his book.
A little farther down the street, we find the general store run by Bolt's father. Wellesley Bolt stands at the counter every day, selling cow's feet, soap and stories about his son's life. He wasn't always a good boy, he says, but he had a lot of talent. In Kingston, people say that Bolt's father has become much more tight-lipped since some of his stories contradicted his son's memories. Like his father's shop, his former high school was also renovated with Bolt's money. It looks as if he had picked out the color -- a bright pink -- himself.
You travel to the end of the world, and still all you find is the legend. The entire village -- with its teachers, relatives and school friends -- feels like a friendly Usain Bolt museum funded with money from his sponsors. Bolt is the most important spokesman for the Puma brand. Puma's marketing slogan is called "Joy!" Company officials at Puma's international headquarters, in Boston, say that Bolt fits the branding image perfectly: He's 100 percent joy.
A Winner Even in Defeat
"The Usain phenomenon is that he's exactly what he is," says Ricky Simms of Pace Sports Management, which manages Bolt. "You get what you ask for."
Simms is a thin, pale Irishman who doesn't leave Bolt's side. He stands next to the massage table, he waits at the finish line, he sits next to him in the car and he sleeps at Bolt's house in the mountains outside Kingston. Bolt has been his most valuable client for almost a decade. Simms says that they have become friends over time. He guards Bolt like a crown jewel. For a while, he answered the questions Bolt was being asked via email. He doesn't even do that anymore. All the answers have already been given.
Bolt says that, in London, he wants to be the first person to successfully defend his 100- and 200-meter titles. He says that he has nothing against stricter anti-doping tests. He says that he is capable of running a time of about 9.4 seconds. And he says that the Olympic track in London is fast.
You get what you ask for.
Bolt also lost the 200-meter final in Kingston to his teammate, Yoman Blake. It was Bolt's last race before the London Olympics, and everyone seemed oddly relieved. Bolt talked about performance curves and highlights of the season. Ricky Simms said that there was no reason for concern, and that everything is on track.
And even Glen Mills, the coach, was willing to hold a brief conversation. The races here in Kingston, he said, were just for the Olympic qualification. His three protégés captured the top three slots in the 200-meter race.
What is the secret to his success?
"Confidence and hard work," said Mills, smiling as if he were in possession of the theory of everything. Then he put his arm around Bolt.
Cubie Seegobin, Blake's manager, stood next to the track in his lucky Bob Marley T-shirt and watched the two men walk away. He had predicted Blake's victory, and Blake had won. Seegobin seemed satisfied but not relieved. His protégé had won again, but the sky hadn't opened up. Perhaps Seegobin understood, on that evening, that a legend couldn't be beat.
"Bob Marley was actually an Adidas fan," Seegobin says, "but now Puma is using him in its ads."
An hour after losing the 200-meter race in Kingston, Bolt was getting a massage in the middle of the stadium. It was Sunday night, the stadium was almost empty, and only a few fans were still walking across the grass. Some approached the bench where Bolt was lying and took pictures of him with their cell phones. The fans kept getting closer and closer to Bolt, until about 50 security guards arrived and formed a ring around the man on the bench. They were wearing white shirts and dark ties, and they locked hands to form a human wall. The man in the middle, the fastest man on Earth, seemed like an endangered species.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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