Rooting fo the stars
Usain Bolt tops the bill in Ricky Simms' stable of athletes, writes John O'Brien
Published 21/08/2011 | 05:00
HE never saw this life coming. Few of them ever do. He was just another promising young Irish athlete, thinking that if he pushed himself, he might have a career on the track. He ran out of Finn Valley Athletic Club near Ballybofey in Co Donegal, good enough to win an Ulster Schools' title and finish fourth in the Irish Championships. There was raw talent to build on. If only he could find the time . . .
So the life chose him instead. Crept up on him almost surreptitiously. He was managing even before he realised it, doing it because people asked him for help and because it came naturally. He was the one athletes approached when they needed a leg up. He organised races, sorted deals here and there, tied up the loose ends of promising athletics careers. He did it all without a notion of where it might eventually lead him.
"As an athlete, I couldn't sit still for a second. Always needed to be doing something. Around 1997 or 1998 I was running quite well. I thought about training full-time, see how far I could get. But I was down to Dublin twice a week, on BLE marketing committees and compiling statistics. I was in charge of Donegal athletics and coaching athletes in Finn Valley. Always doing stuff."
Doing stuff. That was Ricky Simms' calling. Just as it had been for Kim McDonald before him. When McDonald's running career ended through injury in 1985, he set up his own agency instead. He had been a decent middle-distance athlete, but a far better manager and organiser. Simms was cut from the same cloth. "If I'd had me when I was a golfer," Chubby Chandler once observed, "I'd have been a hell of a better player."
When McDonald started out, he made Teddington, a leafy suburb in south-west London, his base. In time it would become a true nerve centre of world athletics. Marcus O'Sullivan and Frank O'Mara based themselves here in the 1980s. Sonia O'Sullivan still owns a house nearby. It is where Usain Bolt stays when he is racing in Europe. Close to the heartbeat of UK athletics. Close to Simms, his friend and manager, whose PACE Sports Management offices are just down the road.
Simms first noticed Bolt when the Jamaican was 15 and, already, the talk of the athletics circuit. Bolt had won gold in the 200m at the World Junior Championships in Kingston in 2002, the youngest ever to do so. "I was at a Golden League meeting in Monaco soon afterwards," says Simms. "People were saying, wow, you want to see this Jamaican kid. Just 15 and already beating the under 20s."
In Paris the following year, they got the chance to talk when Bolt travelled with the Jamaican team to the World Championships. "They brought him along for the experience and we met him there. We had a few Jamaican athletes on our books so that helped us get an introduction. They knew he'd be going to college and would need an agent. I never asked Usain how many other guys he met or talked to but, fortunately for us, he ended up coming with us."
Signing up athletes was one thing, getting to know and understand them quite another. Before the 2004 Olympics, Bolt came to stay in Teddington and arrived with another talented Jamaican, the 400m runner Jermaine Gonzales. "We took them to dinner in a nice French restaurant, thinking it was a good thing to do. But they weren't comfortable. It wasn't their scene at all. They wanted a McDonald's on the way home. That was the food they liked, the culture they liked."
McDonald had been among the first to spot the opening for foreign athletes to carve out lucrative careers in Europe, importing the first great wave of Kenyan athletes in the late 1980s: Paul Bitok, William Tanui, Samson Kitur, Robert Kibet. For Simms, Kenya remains a crucial market. Of the 70 or so athletes listed on his books, more than half are Kenyan, predominantly sourced at the PACE talent camp in Eldoret in western Kenya.
It is, unquestionably, big business. Simms compares the never-ending search for talent to big football clubs like Manchester United or Arsenal scouring the globe looking for cheap talent they can develop into wealthy assets. But with one crucial distinction: the numbers are nowhere near as great. The process is less ruthless than it sounds. Because opportunities are restricted now, they might take no more than three athletes from Kenya a year and, even then, only if they have proved they are good enough.
In London, they usually share a house supplied by Simms in Teddington and the presence of so many Kenyan athletes often causes intense interest. Reporters call to the house and see great athletes like Micah Kogo, Mike Kigen, Vivian Cheruiyot living in modest conditions and seem surprised, as if they had anticipated plush leather sofas and gold-plated taps. They have overlooked the context of the athletes' lives.
"You have to remember these are African athletes," says Simms. "We'd one athlete who came to us in Kenya in his bare feet. Often all they have is what they are wearing. So you give them shoes, tracksuits. At the camp we've a chef so they eat properly. They get a toothbrush which is often for the first time. After two years if they're good enough they might come to Europe and it's a different life there. It's an opportunity they've never had."
Working with McDonald he learned the critical lesson that, although athletics was becoming big business and you needed to be ruthless to survive, it was still important to retain the human touch. When McDonald died tragically at the age of 45 in 2002, the sadness among his athletes was palpable. Noah Ngeny, who runs the PACE camp in Eldoret, captured the sad mood.
"He was a father figure for me," Ngeny said. "I will miss him a lot."
Simms understands these bonds can't be forced. He has a certain relationship with his athletes and they depend as much on his business acumen as his friendship. Yet sometimes the boundary becomes blurred. He remembers when Mo Farah, Britain's No 1 distance athlete, came to Teddington in 2006. Farah already lived in London but wanted to be in an environment where he could test himself and improve. Simms loved his attitude and it helped too that Farah had a likeable attitude and a curiosity about life that made him easy to warm to.
"He has a way about him that is natural and makes people like him. One year I went back to Donegal for Christmas and Mo came to stay with the family. He'd been to Donegal a couple of times with English Schools and you could see he really loved the place. He'd have the crack with the people and they loved him too. He drove my car and lived like a member of the family, like a little brother to me really."
Not every athlete wants or needs that closeness, of course, but it is the ethos that shapes them. Simms can't say how many people he employs -- it varies depending on season -- but it is deliberately small, a tight group of hard-working people always on call, working long hours to achieve an intimacy he hopes will inoculate them against the threat of becoming a heartless corporate machine that treats athletes like commodities to be bought and sold.
"Well, we're nice people you know," he smiles. "We were athletes too. We tried to make it. We didn't make it. So we're helping these athletes to try and do it instead. That comes before business and money and contracts and everything else. Yes, it's our job to make money for our athletes. That's why they hire us. But I love the story of Ryan Giggs. He's had the same agent all his career, never had a contract, like a father figure to him. I'm not that old but maybe I can be a big brother to some of the athletes. I like to think they trust I'm looking after them, not spoiling their fun, but keeping them on the right path."
He likes it that when Bolt is asked to describe their relationship, he refers to him as a friend as well as a manager. In some ways, Simms isn't surprised they hit it off. Bolt comes from a place where Guinness and Hennessy are the most popular drinks and where the way of life, the climate excepted, is similar in many respects to Ireland. The easy-going nature, the innate ability to connect, he imagines, is partly what drew Bolt to him.
What he likes, most of all, is the fact that Bolt hasn't changed in any significant way since the day they first met in 2004. The playful, carefree Jamaican who loves to munch French fries and chicken nuggets has become the Bolt caricature but it is as close to truth as most caricatures get. When he travels, Bolt is a star without any preening self-regard. There are no ridiculous demands or diva moments. Bolt bears his fame lighter than any man Simms has known. It is no crushing burden.
"He never wants special treatment. In Daegu [for next week's World Championships] he'll be there in the athletes' village with the team. That's where he wants to be. Some athletes reach a certain level and expect to be treated differently. Not him. Within reason, he just wants to be another athlete. He's happy to be part of the relay team next week and he'll run the third leg because they ask him to. Most people would want to run the last leg."
He speaks about Bolt with an air of innocence that cuts through the swaddle of cynicism and corruption that has blighted modern athletics and tells you much about Bolt and his importance to the sport. He talks about Bolt's ultimate retirement -- after the 2016 Olympics all going well -- and his ambition to become a professional footballer in way that suggests Bolt wants to do it, not because of his fame or his status, but because it would simply be fun to try and no harm done if he fails.
It is that sense of impish fun that makes it easy for even the hardest-bitten cynics to believe. After his extraordinary run in Beijing in 2008, the IOC president Jacques Rogge fired a verbal volley at Bolt, saying he had disrespected his opponents when the truth, as Simms knows, is that the Jamaican is personally well-regarded by his peers as well as a marketing dream for athletics.
"Sprinting's a bit like boxing," Simms says. "The showmanship, the swaggering. Usain's a breath of fresh air for a troubled sport."
As a friend, Simms naturally worries about the unrelenting pressure Bolt faces, but he has always coped. From the beginning Bolt has fielded tough questions about his career and the inevitable suspicion of drug-taking and always handled himself admirably. Several Jamaican sprinters have returned positive tests in recent years, including Bolt's training partner Yohan Blake in 2009, although Bolt himself has never been implicated and is widely accepted as a clean athlete.
"He handles it all very well," Simms says. "At the start of his career he got questioned all the time. Now people have seen him. He's been around. He's been tested a lot, all the time in fact. He was tested this morning. He's always clean. Within athletics people have never questioned him because they saw him as a kid at 15 and he was a fantastic talent then. He didn't suddenly spring up from nowhere."
The pressure now is to perform in Daegu next weekend. He knows people will expect nothing less than a new world record. To see Bolt eclipse the staggering 9.58 he ran in Berlin two years ago. To see this freakish, phenomenal talent push the boundaries of human possibility farther than it's ever been extended before. Simms just sees an athlete working hard day by day to ensure he is at his peak on the given day. No guarantees.
"This year has shown it's hard. He's had a few critics. He's won all his races but only run 9.88. People expect 9.6 or 9.7 every race. But you have to build up to get into that kind of shape. A striker goes through periods where he isn't scoring lots of goals but he's still playing well for the team.
"Sure, he's a bit frustrated he isn't running all these times. But he's working extremely hard to improve his start and to see where he can find that extra little bit. Asafa Powell has run 9.7 a couple of times this year. People are saying he's favourite for the 100m in Daegu. It will be interesting. Usain's a massive championship performer."
Before the final -- let's assume they make it -- Simms will be in the bowels of the stadium as usual, near Bolt but not close enough to smother him. If he doesn't see Bolt smiling, swapping banter and small talk, clowning around as if he is preparing for the Community Games in Mosney, then he will know there is something amiss.
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