Jamaicans dominate running because they do it for a better life and they are not messing around
Jamaicans dominate running because they do it for a better life and they are not messing around
London, 5 August 2012, 9.45pm. Eight men are called to the blocks. Each goes down slowly and methodically. They dig their feet in and delicately place their hands in the corners of the lane. A plastic bottle lands behind them, thrown by a man in the crowd, but it goes unheard. They wait and 80,000 people in London’s Olympic stadium hush. An echoey, tense kind of silence.
They are called to “set”. They hold this position for two seconds. The gun goes and an electric charge runs through the crowd. I am sitting 30 rows from the front, level with the finish line, experiencing the paradox of the 100 metres: simultaneously the quickest and the longest nine-point-something seconds. Trying not to blink, aware that it will all be over quickly, but concentrating so hard that the seconds seem to stretch. The dots gradually enlarge and emerge as a line of sprinters, one of them, when he is unfurled, a full head taller than the others: Usain Bolt.
Justin Gatlin is quickest out of the blocks, Yohan Blake, Bolt’s clubmate and the world champion, a fraction slower, then Tyson Gay in the next lane along. Asafa Powell, the third Jamaican, reacts almost as quickly as Gatlin, and Ryan Bailey is also up. Bolt is sixth, though he is “still with the crowd”, as he puts it later; still in contact with the five in front. Athletes compete in a race during Jamaica's Inter-Secondary Schools Boys and Girls Athletics Championships in 2012
They are approaching now, growing larger. Bolt draws level with Gatlin at 50 metres. Gay is still marginally ahead; Powell is fading, so is Bailey. Now Bolt and Blake lead, but it’s still close. They reach 70 metres, and Bolt surges. It is an extraordinary spectacle, Bolt in full flight, and it makes the outcome inevitable. Blake dips for second, Gatlin takes bronze.
It is different from Beijing, four years earlier, when the 21-year-old Bolt produced a performance seared into the imagination, one that left an imprint like only a few other moments in sport, when incredible talent combined with soaring ambition and absolute fearlessness. How many compare? Having galloped into an outrageous lead against the fastest men in the world, Bolt was able to look left, look right, thump his chest, spread his arms, then visibly relax and spend the final 10 metres coasting and celebrating. It was as decisive and seemingly effortless as Diego Maradona’s mazy run against England in 1986, Mike Tyson’s 90-second demolition of Michael Spinks in 1988 or, in the same year, Ben Johnson’s 9.79-second destruction of Carl Lewis in the Olympic 100 metres final.
In an event measured by fractions of fractions of seconds, Bolt did something in Beijing that should not have been possible. It looked like he was playing a different game, or that he belonged to a different species. And it was all so graceful. “He’s beautiful to watch,” said Renaldo Nehemiah, the former 110 metres hurdles world record holder. “His stride, I mean, it’s poetry in motion. He’s like a gazelle.”
In London four years later there is no showboating, apart from a small gesture by Bolt’s standards: a finger to his lips, “Sssshhhh”. “I almost did what I did in Beijing, I almost did it,” he chuckles later. “But I thought, ‘Nah, I’ll just run through the finish’.” He wins in 9.63 seconds, a new Olympic record.
In a low-ceilinged, brightly-lit room deep in the bowels of London’s Olympic stadium, somewhere below the main stand, Usain Bolt shuffles into the press conference, this one after the 200 metres, which he has also won. First he requests a drum roll. “I’m now a legend,” he says. “I am the greatest athlete to live. To all the people who doubted me, who thought I would lose here, you can stop talking now. I am a living legend.” Then he explodes with laughter.
Who, now, does he regard as his peers in sport: Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, Pele? Beyond sport, has he superseded Bob Marley as the greatest Jamaican in history?
“Ali was the greatest in his sport, Jordan the greatest in his, and I am the greatest in mine, so I guess I am at that level,” Bolt replies. “I am in the same category as Michael Johnson, too. Bob Marley? I’m just carrying on his duty. We have the same goal, to make Jamaica a country that is loved around the world.” Jamaica’s Usain Bolt (right) sprints away from Ryan Bailey as Tyson Gay hands on the United States baton in the 4x100m final at London 2012 Jamaica’s Usain Bolt (right) sprints away from Ryan Bailey as Tyson Gay hands on the United States baton in the 4x100m final at London 2012
Twenty minutes later, about to leave, he asks once again for the reporters’ attention. There is a glint in his eye and a smile on his face. “I have one more thing to say. I am now a living legend. Bask in my glory. If I don’t see that in the paper and on TV in all your countries I will never give an interview again. Tell everyone to follow me on Twitter.”
It wasn’t just Bolt. It was Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, Yohan Blake, Warren Weir. It was Asafa Powell, Veronica Campbell-Brown, Nesta Carter, Sherone Simpson. Seven gold medals from the eight sprint events in London: Jamaica, a tiny island, had come close to complete domination for a second Olympic Games. Twenty of the fastest 25 men’s 100 metres in history had now been run by Jamaicans. It was, depending on where you stood, incredibly impressive, or deeply suspicious.
Like many – such as Carl Lewis, the nine-time Olympic gold medallist, or Dan Bernstein, the CBS columnist, who wrote, “Anyone wasting words extolling the greatness of Usain Bolt should know better” – I was, if not suspicious, then certainly sceptical. Bernstein was right: if we didn’t know better than to assume that the Olympic 100 metres champion was clean, then we hadn’t learned anything from Ben Johnson, Marion Jones, Justin Gatlin and countless others, nor from the asterisks, denoting drugs cheats, that rain down like confetti on the all-time fastest list.
The broader question was not: is Bolt clean? That is too loaded. Rather, I wanted to find out why he is so good. The two questions might be related. But equally, they might not be. In a way, my question was: how can we be certain of our heroes? Can we dare to hope? In trying to find out, I found myself drawn more to the culture that produced Bolt than to Bolt himself. Because he is not a one-off; far from it.
Outside the stadium it is like a large music festival or major sports event. Stalls and street vendors line Arthur Wint Drive. In the stifling heat, women sit beneath umbrellas and beside large coolboxes filled with drinks, and men materialise alongside me, hustling and hassling – “higgling”, they call it. “Cold drink, man?” “Mi have ticket – you want ticket?”
It’s Tuesday, day one of Champs, Jamaica’s boys’ and girls’ inter-schools championships. A schools athletics meeting like no other. Security is tight. At the gate, there’s a long queue, at the end of which uniformed men and women check tickets and bags and even peel labels off non-sanctioned soft drinks. My bottle of Pepsi is confiscated while a guard pulls at the sticker. “Why are you doing that?” I ask.
“Advertising,” he says.
“But Pepsi is one of the sponsors.”
“Oh...” His colleague nods confirmation. He hands the bottle back. Inside the National Stadium, more guards carry walkie-talkies or wear earpieces. The stadium, opened in 1962, the year that Jamaica gained its independence, is a sand-coloured bowl that sits in a relatively affluent New Kingston neighbourhood.
It’s hard to believe, as I negotiate the throngs of people, that this is a schools championship. But Champs is the only show in town. The newspapers are full of it. The radio stations are dominated by discussion of the young athletes – some of them already household names – who will star over the five days. There are public service announcements advising spectators to lock up and register their guns with the police. There is live TV coverage.
The man in charge of it all, the meet director, is none other than Usain Bolt’s coach, Glen Mills. He is also one of the first people I spot when I enter the main stand and sit on the bench seat. He wears a pale blue T-shirt, loose-fitting jeans and trainers, and greets people with a shy, toothless smile (he is missing his front two upper teeth), but generally doesn’t stop to talk, moving slowly up the stand. Mills doesn’t look relaxed, he looks catatonic. Finally he reaches the top of the steps and the last row of seats and sits down heavily. I have been told that he will not be speaking to journalists during Champs (or at any other time).
Picking up a programme, I read the mind-blowing statistic that at the time, every global male 100 metres champion, in every age group, is Jamaican: Olympic, world, Commonwealth, Youth Olympic, world junior and world youth. But on the very next page is something that jars with the celebratory, self-congratulatory tone. It says that from 2015 it has been proposed that drug-testing will be introduced at Champs, testing kids from 10 years old upwards. “It is such a pity that the hard work and natural talent of our young athletes are now being scrutinised with suspicion,” says the article, before going on to question whether drug-testing children is to ensure fairness, to protect “Brand Jamaica” or to “appease international critics’”
“Hey, you a coach?” an American voice asks to my left. He is unmistakably an American sports coach: neatly pressed polo shirt, college logo, knee-length shorts, baseball cap, sunglasses. He introduces himself as Keith Barnier, head track and field coach at Abilene Christian University (ACU) in Texas. He has come to Champs early, he tells me, to get a head start on the other US college coaches. Most arrive for the final day, the climax to the meeting, and then, Barnier says, “get the hell back out as soon as possible”. 400m runner Dane Hyatt was among the Jamaican athletes appearing at an open training session in Birmingham 400m runner Dane Hyatt was among the Jamaican athletes appearing at an open training session in Birmingham in 2012
“They think Kingston is dangerous,” he explains. “They say, ‘What the hell do you do there for five days?’ But my wife is Jamaican, and I know you gotta be in the club of Jamaican people. You take care of them, they take care of you. Trust is everything here.”
Barnier clicks his tongue in appreciation as he watches Christopher Taylor, a 14-year-old from Calabar, win a 400-metres heat in 48.72 seconds. “Forty-eight for a 14-year-old!” he laughs, as though the idea were preposterous (which it would be anywhere other than here). Taylor is small, wiry and smooth as silk. The crowd becomes excited to the point of hysteria as he glides down the home straight.
Barnier says he’s here mainly to study athletes in their final year, with a view to recruiting them for ACU. “I look at the green bananas,” he says. “But what I need are yellow ones.
“These guys are like soldiers,” he continues. “And this, Champs, it prepares them for war. There’s nothing like this anywhere else in the world. This is a freak show.” He means this in the nicest way. “I’m serious. These kids are running for a better life and they are not messing around. The coaches are not messing around. And they are good coaches.” What makes them good coaches? “They give a shit.”
Barnier knows most of the coaches and knows how they operate, explaining that they might initially send him a less talented youngster. “They’ll toss you a bone. It might not be their best athlete, but if you do well they’ll send you a better one. That’s what I mean about trust. When you make a promise to the Jamaicans, you gotta keep it. Americans say things they don’t mean. My wife catches me for that.”
I meet Barnier the next day, and the day after, and the day after. He spends long hours at the stadium, but increasingly away from the main arena, in the stand by the side of the warm-up track; “hustlin,’’ as he puts it. “This is the boiler room,” he tells me, having sneaked me into what is technically a no-go area for journalists. “This is where it all happens – not out there on the track.” Here, backstage, are coaches watching groups of athletes going through their paces; other athletes on tables, masseurs, physiotherapists; and a lot of slow, languid movement. The athletes are different but the scene is identical to Moscow before the world championships, which tells its own story: the professionalism is striking. (I don’t remember sports masseurs and physios at my school.)
Barnier picks his moments to approach the coaches – “not just before a race” – at one point returning and holding up his wrist, where there used to be a watch. “Traded it for an athlete,” he says. A joke. I think. But he does say one coach offered his best athlete if Barnier could get his own son a basketball scholarship. Barnier says: “I’m handing out $46,000 scholarships.”
At one time this would have been the holy grail. A scholarship to a US college was something every Jamaican athlete coveted – it was the whole point of excelling at athletics; it offered a ticket out of Jamaica. But there seemed to be a sporting cost attached: lots of promising young Jamaican athletes went to the States and were never heard of again. These days, a “bone” might be all a US college gets. Some of the best Jamaicans are staying at home.
Barnier is familiar with the stories, and also the criticism that at US colleges Jamaican athletes are over-raced and burned out, or transferred to other sports – perhaps basketball or American football. In terms of popularity (and money), track and field lag a long way behind such sports. One theory is that if Usain Bolt had gone to a US college, he would have come under pressure to become a basketball player.
Change came in the early 2000s. Lots of young Jamaican athletes still go to the US, but they no longer have to. The best ones – Bolt, Yohan Blake, Asafa Powell, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, Warren Weir, Nesta Carter, Kemar Bailey-Cole – have opted instead to stay at home and train under Glen Mills or the other guru, Stephen Francis. Powell was the trend-setter. Or the trend-reverser.