The sport of track and field athletics has always prided itself as the crème de la crème of the world of sport. This claim has often been challenged by others ports which boast mass appeal and excitement.
At the Summer Olympic Games Athletics has long been unchallenged in terms of the attendance figures. Even in the USA where the sport is not generally regarded as popular the Atlanta edition in 1996 saw crowds in the order of 93,000 with great frequency. Beijing in 2008 would have easily topped all previous attendance records thanks in large measure to the sheer population size of the host country, China.
In Beijing the world was held spellbound by the exploits of Michael Phelps of the USA in the swimming events of the Aquatics competition as he went after a record number of gold medals and world records. When he was done with the pool some thought that was the end of the appeal of the Olympics. Swimming is usually held in the first part of the Summer Olympics programme.
As athletics started Usain Bolt of Jamaica brought the Olympic Games alive and with tremendous vigour and appeal as he first lowered the 100m world and Olympic marks before demolishing the 200m record of Michael Johnson set in 1996 in Atlanta and ended with another world record performance as Jamaica took home the gold in the 4 x 100m Relay.
Unlike Phelps Bolt operated as a demolition unit where the world records were concerned, leaving athletics officials boasting that the Olympic Games begin when track and field competition starts, everything else are mere sideshows.
The Bolt phenomenon
Jamaica played host to the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) World Junior Championships in 2002. There were two young Jamaicans who had recently burst on the scene of whom much was expected despite their ages while participating in an Under 20 competition.
Usain Bolt and Anesia McLaughlin were both aged 15 years and the Jamaican athletics fraternity had already seen their immense potential. As things turned out, Bolt ran away with the 200m winning quite easily while McLaughlin had to settle for second in her event.
The World Junior Championships of 2002 proved to be good for the Caribbean as Trinidad and Tobago’s Darryl Brown and Marc Burns finished first and second respectively in the 100m.
Hamilton, Bermuda was the scene of the next most remarkable performance by Usain Bolt. In the 200m at the Carifta Games, literally unchallenged, he won the 200m in the world junior record time of 19.83ecs, an unbelievable achievement for a young man not yet quite 17 years old.
Later in 2004 Bolt was selected to the national team to the Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece, instead of the World Junior Championships in Grossetto, Italy. Injury however set in and he was out of sorts for a period of time.
In 2005 competing in the 200m at the IAAF World Outdoor Championships in Helsinki, Finland, he pulled up just about 60m from the finish line in the finals.
Not much was head from Bolt’s camp until 2008.
Located at the IAAF’s High Performance Training Centre (HPTC) in Kingston, Jamaica, and coached by Glen Mills, Bolt shifted from running the 400m altogether and began running the 100m in addition to the 200m. Many thought that his he was too tall to get his legs in motion for the short sprint. Mills however thought different. He prepared Bolt for the 100m and from his first outdoor venture Bolt revealed that he would be a major threat to the world’s best in the 100m and 200m.
In every sense, the rest is history.
Bolt literally destroyed the 100 and 200m for the next few years. He set new world marks in Beijing in both events and repeated this feat in an amazing display of sprinting one year later at the IAAF World Outdoor Championships in Berlin, Germany.
To many the ease with which Bolt demolished the opposition in his races revealed a new era in sprinting and the sport of athletics more generally.
Jamaica readily climbed on board the exciting and lucrative train that was Brand Bolt. Jamaican economists, marketing and tourism experts all rushed to determine the immense value of Brand Bolt to the nation’s economy.
In short order Bolt became the poster boy of athletics economics with endorsements coming fast and furious from literally everywhere. He has emerged as the most financially successful athletes in the history of the sport of track and field athletics.
While Jamaica was eagerly developing Brand Bolt the IAAF seemed incapable of understanding what a treasured opportunity the Caribbean nation had made available. To this day the IAAF has been unable to make capital of the existence of a Usain Bolt in the sport for which it is custodian.
Perhaps the failure of the IAAF to position itself to benefit from Brand Bolt and take the sport to another level may well be reflected of the paucity of the leadership of the organisation itself. Indeed, over the past several years the IAAF has been going rapidly downhill in terms of its finances to the extent that it has been forced to cut its development budget by some 30%. This has meant a significant reduction in the Competition Grants and the eradication of the Athletes’ Preparation Grants.
Despite Bolt’s amazing achievements in athletics in such a short period of time the international governing body for the sport has just as amazingly gone into decline.
On the other hand Jamaican athletics has benefitted tremendously from Brand Bolt. The national governing body for the sport became immensely popular even though since Arthur Wint and Herb McKinley introduced Jamaica’s athletics potential to the world when they medalled at the Summer Olympics of 1948 and again in the Games of 1952 when Rhoden and Laing were also heroes.
After Bolt’s Beijing achievements the athletics world wanted to know Jamaica’s secret. The success of the female athletes in the sprints at Beijing undoubtedly added to this growing interest in Jamaican athletics but it was Bolt’s singular performances that were the foundation of it all.
There was interest in the training methods used, the coach’s strategies and even the food that Bolt ate.
Some national associations in other countries expressed interest in having their athletes move to Jamaica to benefit from training there. Others were interested in having Jamaican coaches work in their countries for some time in order to transfer the magic that led to the achievements of Usain Bolt.
Proprietors of track and field Grand Prix events readily made overtures to Bolt offering unrevealed sums to get him to compete that this or that Meet.
The IAAF was left at the starting blocks in all of this.
Chinks in the armour
Bolt has steered clear of the IAAF World Indoor Championships and has shown no real interest in the Commonwealth Games even though at the time the President of the Commonwealth Games Federation – proprietor of these Games – was a Jamaican, Michael Fennel. This meant that 2010 was a relatively calm year for Bolt.
In 2011 Bolt appeared to have lost focus. He was clearly not prepared for the 100m during the competitive season. He spent more time doing 200m at Grand Prix competitions while his training partner, Yohan Blake, seemed to have come of age and was setting tracks alight everywhere in the 100m.
There was no surprise then that Bolt false started at the IAAF World Outdoor Championships in Daegu, South Korea. Despite suggestions to the contrary this author believes that it was a deliberate false start in Daegu.
The large Jamaican contingent on hand in Daegu was left in a state of shock, so much so that they did not even take the time to acknowledge the achievement of their fellow Jamaican, Yohan Blake. Later, perhaps, they simply put the false start by Bolt as a mere aberration.
Bolt was not ready for the competition offered by Blake and may well not have wanted to damage Brand Bolt by losing at such an international competition.
Happily for Bolt, Blake did not contest the 200m in Daegu and so he came away with that title and the gold in the 4 x 100m Relay.
For many Jamaicans and sprinting enthusiasts around the world Bolt would be back. They had all fallen in love with him and his charm. He is the world’s best track and field athlete.
Unfortunately, however, many have not been following Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake enough to get a sense of the different work ethic of these two sprinters.
For all those who were not paying attention the results of the Jamaican National Championships – the official trials for that country’s national team to the London Olympics of 2012 – tell it all.
Yohan Blake showed that he was much better prepared than Usain Bolt for both the 100m and 200m with the Olympics a mere few weeks away.
Reports indicate that Blake has been particularly focused on the two events and he is serious about wanting to win them in London. At the moment his hunger seems infinitely greater than that of Bolt who has been basking in the glory of the sport since Beijing.
Connoisseurs of track and field athletes hold the view that the sport has never seen anyone the likes of Usain Bolt and that he is indeed phenomenal. However they do admit that regardless of one’s talent there must be discipline. The talented athlete cannot relax on his laurels while others commit to programmes aimed at dethroning the champion. This may well be what obtains at present in Jamaica. Bolt may have taken too much for granted and has paid the heavy price of defeat at the hands of his training partner in his two pet events before his own Jamaican society.
Already the management of Brand Bolt has been severely jolted. The image of Usain as almost invincible has been forever tainted.
The IAAF and the sport of athletics have been shell-shocked.
Bolt now has to prove himself a true champion by regaining his crowns. Taking only one of them back in London would not do. The athletics fraternity and the critics of the sport would only be satisfied with gold.
Bolt himself, having promised to do four events in London, 100, 200m, 4 x 100m and 4 x 400m, must now show that he possesses the requisite discipline to remove the chinks in his armour.
The world waits on Usain Bolt as never before.