Words Ryan Scott, pics supplied
The media rarely gets the opportunity to come and see the Jamaican hero on his own turf, training on a faded university track in the heart of the capital. With his sensational performances and enigmatic showmanship, Bolt has elevated his sport to unprecedented levels—and he showed us where it all began.
Kingston is a dump. Nestled between the southern Jamaican hills and the blue Caribbean Sea, the grubby city’s substantial underbelly lies in wait for oversized telephoto lens–carrying, fat American tourists with tropical thoughts on their mind and an obnoxious ‘how bad can it be’ attitude. Those who stop over in Kingston are generally en route to their package-deal holidays in the resorts of Montego Bay, Ocho Rios and Runaway Bay.
The truth is, the lush northern coastline and interior of the island are all about tick-boxing the exotic Caribbean holiday, while the largest city, the capital of Kingston in the south, can be bad—so bad, in fact, that over a thousand murders in a year and an international crime rating status of ‘critical’ make it one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Yet, this port city, with a population of 750 000, is the place where the all-time fastest sprinter in the world calls home. It’s been that way from the beginning of his professional career that commenced in 2004, and will unlikely change before his imminent retirement.
The appeal for Jamaican local Usain Bolt certainly doesn’t lie in high-performance centres or state-of-the-art track and field training facilities that attract top athletes to more suitable areas such as California, Miami and Arizona. He just laughs and shivers at the thought of Boston, New York City or Europe in winter. No, none of the bright lights nor the technology of the modern-day track fall within his dedicated training regime. Instead, Bolt chooses to stay right in the heart of Kingston, busting out his drills on a stadium-less University of The West Indies track, and working out to bulk up muscle onto his 1.95-metre frame in the off season in a stark, simple gym just a discus throw away from the fading blue lanes.
Over his lengthy career, media has never really been given the opportunity to come and see where it all goes down. Bolt’s coach Glen Mills rules with an iron fist and protects his charge for all that he’s worth—and the man who has been called the most marketable athlete on the planet and who signed the most lucrative endorsement contract ever in track and field is a substantial bounty.
It’s just months before the 2016 Rio Olympics, Bolt’s last, and his big sponsor Puma has managed to out-wrestle the coach into granting us the privilege of getting up close and personal in the very place that has been off limits to media for so many years.
I’m standing on the track with the chilled Jamaican who looks even more at ease than when I talked to him last year in New York City, giving off a sense of warm hospitality and pride at eventually being able to show us where it all began and why he chooses to remain here.
He’s busy showing off his new Puma spikes, the latest in his bag of tricks. Turning on a small disc, he shows us how the shoe has done away with laces, replaced by the disc system that tightens the shoe to his feet with a couple of clicks. It’s a throwback to 25 years ago when Welsh hurdler Colin Jackson and German long jumper Heike Drechsler were using the same technology. Bolt knows the obvious joke that’s coming and is quick to be the first to have a little laugh at himself: “These shoes are perfect for me, more so than anyone else. I’ve never been so good with my laces.” Of course, he’s referring to 2008 when he won his first 100m Olympic gold, in Beijing: a memorable occasion that saw his laces come undone and precariously flail around his spikes as he began showing off for the crowd at 80m—and still smashed the world record in a time of 9.69 seconds.
Pounding his chest and celebrating prematurely is something the old-school fans and critics have come to harp on about over and over. I ask Bolt if the criticism affects him at all, and what he gets out of communicating with the crowd so much. “I always try to be a fun person, that’s what makes people enjoy watching me compete. I like to bring my personality into what I do. I’m not the class clown, but I do like to do things differently and have fun. And winning is fun.”
He is also over those who go on about his slow starts: “At the Olympics [London 2012], I told coach I was going to get a good start. He said to me, ‘Listen, stop worrying about the start. You’re not a good starter. You’ve only ever got one good start in your life, so get over it. Just go out there, do what you have to do and you’ll be all right.’ That put my mind at ease from then on.”
It’s this honest, laid-back style that serves the man well. Even though he’s so comfortable in Kingston and its unsophisticated style, Bolt is still motivated to train—not just to continue his legacy but to help discover the next successor to the throne. Putting in the time to help in uncovering the best of the incredible sprinting talent that Jamaica has to offer has Bolt as excited and animated as he is about the Rio Olympics. He’s as eager to explain how awesome the Inter-Secondary Schools Boys and Girls Championships (on the go during the interview) at the Jamaican National Stadium is: “When you see the competition, rivalry and the dedication to making a success at Champs, you will get an idea of what it means to Jamaicans to become successful as an athlete.”
The next day, in what plays out like a scene from The Fast and the Furious, our media crew is provided with a frenetic police escort to the National Stadium to witness the final day of the Champs—an experience we’ve been told will be worth our while.
My ticket is Block A Row 1 seat 1. I’m sitting right on the finish line in a stadium of more than 30 000 super-excited and hyped up Jamaicans of all ages and parts of the Island (and, indeed, the world). Two seats down, a 60-year-old woman jumps out of her seat to greet me and explains she flew in from Munich to watch her grandson compete. Another of her grandsons is sitting between us. With some strategic support for all those he’s supporting, and avoiding bestowing any compliments on the opposition he’s lambasting, he quickly decides we’re best buddies for the afternoon. He’s a tall youngster recently out of school, about 20. Wearing all black with a lot of chunky bling accessories, an appropriately styled flat-peaked baseball cap, cellphone and lazy slouch in his bucket seat, the confident young man creates the hip-hop gangster façade so revered on the Island.
There’s a heavy police presence standing right in front of us on the track. The heat and muggy atmosphere, together with non-stop competitive cheering from the different factions in the stadium, create a vibe I’ve never come across at a sporting event, let alone a schools athletics meet. My neighbour is not shy to direct some choice expletives to those blocking his view as the new 16-year-old sprinting star Christopher Taylor smashes another record. The time is 20.80 over 200m, enough to guarantee the affirmation of the youngster as one to sign up and nurture into a star who will help make sure the world continues to heap further accolades on Jamaica.
Usain St. Leo Bolt—his name is as authentically Jamaican as his allegiance to his country. The man chooses to remain entrenched in the Jamaican way, rather than claim patriotism from an estranged location. His natural participation in the rich tradition of this hard-living city of Kingston has surely been the secret to overcoming his critics every time they have doubted he would claim another gold medal in a World Championship or the Olympics.
Count him out of the Rio 2016 Olympics double (100m and 200m Gold) at your peril—but whatever transpires in Brazil, you can be sure Bolt will have contributed, and will continue to contribute in ensuring Jamaica remains the premier sprint factory on the planet.
Source – The Intrepid Explorer