Few would deny that Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt is the fastest man in the world -- but even fewer could say why. While his fans are happy to call him a miracle, the man himself is lost in a cloud of legends, hype and marketing.
Usain Bolt is coming to the London Olympics a defeated man, but apparently no one wants to believe it.
Bolt recently lost his first 100-meter race in two years in Kingston, Jamaica. Afterwards, he was suddenly wide-eyed and shaking his head, as if he'd just woken up from a dream. He, the fastest man in the world, had crossed the finish line one or two meters behind his teammate, Yohan Blake. It was a balmy Caribbean night, the soft smell of grass was in the air in front of the stands, and an insurance broker from Brooklyn named Danny, who was running the PR effort for the Jamaican Olympic trials, was trying to contain the press at the finish line. The general consensus was that it couldn't possibly be true.
Bolt stayed on the track longer than the other runners, the way winners do, and then he jogged over to the journalists waiting for him at the finish line.
"I'm glad that I've qualified for the Olympic Games," he said. Meanwhile, his face bore a look of conflicted emotions and disbelief reminiscence of the one that Mike Tyson, the unbeatable one, had when he was knocked down for the first time.
Still, Bolt managed to talk his way through this unreal moment. As beads of sweat streamed down his face, he talked about season planning, performance curves, priorities and his one, overriding goal: victory in London. After five minutes, one could almost believe that the defeat had merely been part of some larger plan.
During the award ceremony, Bolt walked to the small winners' stand in the middle of the stadium surrounded by a cluster of people. Yohan Blake followed, walking alone. Blake's manager jumped around in front of the journalists, determined to remind them who had actually won that evening.
"Which one of you thought he could do it?" Cubie Seegobin shouted.
No hands went up.
"I'll tell you why," he continued. "You have been taken in by your own stories."
Seegobin is a short, gray-haired man with a nervous look, who shows up to his runners' races wearing a faded Bob Marley T-shirt that he considers a good-luck charm. It's quite possible that he's right. On the next muggy morning, people gathered at the stadium in Kingston for the heats of the 200-meter race still had no idea what to think about Blake's victory. Everyone had questions for Bolt, but he wasn't talking.
A Japanese TV journalist tried asking Blake a Bolt question: "What did you eat for dinner last night, Yohan?"
Blake looked at her as if she'd lost her mind.
Everyone knows that Bolt is partial to Chicken McNuggets and his Aunt Lilly's dumplings, and that he likes Guinness beer, video games and playing dominoes. All we know about Blake is that he became world champion when Bolt was disqualified in the 100-meter race due to a false start. Blake wants the same entry bonuses at the major European meets as Bolt gets, but no one is willing to pay them.
"No one is coming because of Yohan Blake," says Janine Geigele, the head of media and public relations for the Diamond League sports festival in Zurich. "Sixty thousand people came to the stadium in Rome to see Bolt but, without him, it might have been 20,000. I've never seen an athlete who's generated so much hype. He has this aura, and yet he's actually not a very interesting man. You can summarize in five sentences what he says in half an hour."
The Human Miracle
Bolt has run five 100-meter finals this years. Most of his times weren't bad, but the most impressive aspect of those races was the look of longing in the faces of his fans. It's the longing for something unique. Watching Usain Bolt run is like attending a historic event. He isn't just the fastest man in the world; he's also the kind of person one likes to imagine as the fastest man in the world. He doesn't wear skin-tight clothing like his competitors; he doesn't look as brawny; he doesn't have as fierce an expression on his face; and he makes mistakes. But, even so, he's vastly superior to everyone else.
It's also easy to imagine that he doesn't take performance-enhancing drugs. Among all the men who shoot out of the starting blocks like machines, and the women who wear makeup to look more feminine and end up looking like drag queens, he seems like a miracle. A human miracle.
Ever since Bolt began pushing times in seemingly impossible ranges, people who aren't usually interested in track-and-field events have begun following sprint races. They're the people who want to see records made and broken.
"They say there are 7 billion people in the world," Bolt says. "There's nothing cooler than knowing that you're the fastest of them all."
It's no surprise that every sports meeting in which he participates is organized around him. When he ran in Ostrava in the spring, there were posters featuring Bolt all over the Czech city, the stadium was sold out weeks ahead and there were young blonde girls in the stands who had painted the Jamaican national colors on their cheeks.
"Usain?" the stadium announcer shouted.
"Bolt!" the crowd shouted back. And there were still three hours to go before the 100-meter race.
The other athletes were mere accessories, Olympic and world champions playing the opening act for the fastest man in the world. The journalists were interested in only two other athletes. One was Oscar Pistorius, who is running the 400-meter race on prosthetic lower legs, and the other was 800-meter runner Caster Semenya who, for a time, was rumored to be a man.
The woman without a womb, the man without legs and the sprinter without limits; they're all competing in the London Olympics. It's the biggest circus of the day, and these are the star attractions.
Bolt finished in 10.04 seconds in Ostrava. The audience looked at the clock incredulously. It seemed as if Ostrava had overstretched itself, as if the Czech mining town hadn't been good enough for the miracle runner. Commenting on his poor time in the Czech Republic a few days later in Rome, Bolt said: "It was cold. I couldn't get enough sleep. The food was bad. I didn't feel the energy that I need."
The miracle didn't happen, but the miracle worker wasn't blamed for it. He enchants the places he touches, or he bewitches them. Berlin? Great weather, enthusiastic crowd, fast track. Beijing? Incredible energy.
And what, again, was so unusual about Ostrava?
Bad beds, bad weather, bad food.
The world revolves around the man from Jamaica. At a meet in Rome, Bolt didn't just have his own press conference; he had his own press conference day. The race was on a Thursday, Bolt's press conference was on Tuesday and the press conference for the other athletes was on Wednesday. Asafa Powell, once the fastest man in the world, Kim Collins, a former 100-meter world champion, and Christophe Lemaitre, the French European champion in the 100 meters, had to share the stage. Behind them was a large poster depicting Bolt running through Roman scenery. The motto of the gala event was: "Bolt a Roma" ("Bolt in Rome").
Many of the questions the three world-class athletes were asked revolved around Bolt.
"He's good for Jamaica, of course," Powell said. "He should enjoy it while it lasts."
Collins said: "Now he's under pressure. He has to win."
Lemaitre just smiled quietly.
Bolt won the 100-meter race in Rome with the world's best time of the year. He ran a victory lap and returned half an hour later to hop across the lawn of the Stadio Olimpico. The organizers milk the 100-meter race for all it's worth. Ten seconds is a short time. At the end of the competitions in Ostrava, Bolt drove a few times around the stadium in an antique convertible during a deafening fireworks display. In Rome, he shot a lot of imaginary arrows into the night. He kissed the Italian crest on his shirt. He did it because the people there had given him love and energy, he said later. He also said that he had slept and eaten well.
Perhaps that's all he needs to be so fast. Love, food and sleep. Good vibrations.
The Secret to Jamaica's SuccessIt 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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