independent

Friday 18 April 2014

Bolt's magnificence a true wonder of the world

Jamaican's feats will always arouse doubts, writes Dion Fanning

Wallace Spearmon sounded defiant. "That's why we're racing, man, because they're beatable. Otherwise we'd just hand them the medals." Twenty-four hours later, Jamaica were handed the medals.



It was Wednesday evening and Spearmon had just finished second to Yohan Blake by one one hundredth of a second in his 200 metre semi-final. There was hope and from Spearmon there was tough talk. As he moved through the mixed zone, Spearmon sat down to watch Usain Bolt cruise through his semi-final. Spearmon was still in the mixed zone when Bolt arrived. The athletes stop and talk to groups of journalists but they broadcast their comments over the speakers in the mixed zone too. So Spearmon heard when Bolt told reporters: "I pushed myself for 70 metres and then took it easy."

Usain Bolt demonstrated his utter dominance over the sprinting world in London last week but he didn't just dominate them on the track, he scrambled their brains as well.

Wallace Spearmon finished fourth in the 200m on Thursday night and it wasn't just nowhere, it was exile. Jamaica took the first three places but it wasn't even Jamaica, it was the Racers Track Club and it was Glen Mills.

Mills has been around Jamaican athletics for a long time. In the 1960s, he was an assistant coach at a high school and began his education. In the '80s, he coached men like Raymond Stewart and later others like Kim Collins.

But that was before Bolt. Paul Reid is a journalist for the Jamaica Observer. He says some of what has happened on the island is cyclical and some of it is because track and field in Jamaica is now the biggest thing in Jamaica. Cricket, which once captured everyone in Jamaica's imagination, can no longer match the attraction of track and field.

And Bolt is the biggest track and field star in the world. He came into the Games with many predicting his toppling. He was injured, he had been beaten by Yohan Blake and he had lost his motivation. It was, it turned out, a stunning underestimation of Bolt. When he took his place on the blocks for the 100m, Bolt tried his usual insouciance but it was easy to detect anxiety on his face.

"He was aware of what was at stake," Reid says. Bolt works hard, he says, suggesting the biggest trick Bolt played on the world was making it think he was lazy. He also allowed Blake to think he could beat him. Last week, Bolt disabused him of the notion and Blake seemed willing to be Bolt's wingman. "He defers a lot to Bolt, I wonder if he's still in awe of Bolt," Reid says. Blake will still be there to challenge Bolt but he may not beat Bolt before Bolt has beaten himself.

Wallace Weir's third place was almost the remarkable story of the lot. Weir is a hurdler who was converted to the 200m by Mills. A year ago in Crystal Palace, he ran a personal best of 20.43. He ran under 20 seconds for the first time in the 200m at the Jamaican trials and on Thursday night, he improved on that time again, running 19.84. In his last seven races, six have produced personal bests.

The astonishing improvement has led to many to ask questions. On Thursday night, Bolt responded to the jibes of Carl Lewis who has been pointing fingers for 25 years, sometimes accurately in the case of Ben Johnson, while always insisting none should be pointed in his direction.

The clash between Bolt and Lewis may have raised the issue of doping again. "If what is happening in Jamaica was happening in another country like the US, we would be pointing fingers," Reid concedes, "so I understand where they're coming from."

Yohan Blake has been banned for three months while, beyond Mills' camp, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce who won gold in the 100m and took silver in the 200m, was banned for six months when she tested positive for oxcycodone which she had been using to treat a toothache.

Reid has faith in the drug programme run in Jamaica, although many are less impressed by their out-of-competition tests. "I have no reason to believe they are not testing out of competition," Seb Coe said last week. Only a fool, as Reid points out, tests positive at the Olympics. Bolt has caused many to question all they understood about sprinting and much more.

"He makes me sceptical," Dick Pound, WADA's former head told Sports Illustrated on Thursday afternoon when asked about Bolt. "It's short of suspicion: I would never go out and say I'm suspicious of his results, but they're so remarkable that even though he is 6-foot-whatever-he-is and runs like a cat rather than a tank in the old steroidal model, the improvement is so far off the curve that you have to wonder if it's entirely natural. I hope it is -- but you wonder. That's the price you pay for allowing this doping to get out of control."

The world wonders at Bolt's achievements. Pound, with his years of experience, asks wise questions; Lewis seems to think he can preserve his own legacy by exposing the lies of others; Victor Conte, former head of Balco, now provides a different compelling cocktail of expertise and outlandish suggestion.

Jamaica have certainly improved their procedures since Beijing. In 2008, it seemed that opprobrium was as big a deterrent as the drug testers who would fly into the island. "It is something that we guard dearly," Mills said at the time about their reputation for being clean. "They (the people) would turn on you so strong. It's something they would never forgive. And athletes are aware of that and try to walk the tightrope."

Bolt has captured the imagination and so many in the world, and in Jamaica, want to follow in his path. The first generation followed him across the line on Thursday night. Crucially, they were behind him and Bolt acted like he knew they always would be. He made it look easy but he was always aware of how difficult it was going to be. The magnitude of his achievements depended on it.

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