Jamaica's Miracle Myths, Legends and the Making of Usain Bolt
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.
- Part 1: Myths, Legends and the Making of Usain Bolt
- Part 2: The Secret to Jamaica's Success