Tuesday 23 January 2018

Island life laid foundations for Bolt's quest to break new ground

Oliver Brown visits the Jamaican outpost where his dream began

Usain Bolt is hoping to push the barriers in the 200m. Photo: Getty Images
Usain Bolt is hoping to push the barriers in the 200m. Photo: Getty Images

Oliver Brown

It is a sticky, sultry afternoon in Sherwood Content, where Wellesley Bolt keeps weary guard outside his bright-pink grocery store. All is quiet, save for the squawk of the odd chicken scuttling by.

You need a four-wheel drive, or at least a healthy tolerance of potholed roads, just to reach this remote village in Jamaica's rugged interior. Wellesley, surveying the scene, avows that he could never live anywhere else. "I used to work for the coffee industry board, before I was made redundant," he says. "Then I set up this shop. I sell mostly meat and dry goods."

The lineaments of his face, framed by a Toyota baseball cap and a Sporting Lisbon shirt, are unmistakable. Equally striking is the peeling sign at the end of his road, declaring this to be the home of the world's fastest man.

Usain, his son, might have long since moved to the bright lights of Kingston, but for Bolt Snr this rustic outpost remains the place where a great dream was formed. "Usain was born in this community," Wellesley says.

"He grew up here, he went to primary school here. Wherever he is, he would prefer to be in the country. He's a natural country boy."

As Bolt lines up in Rio today for the 100 metres heats that will launch his assault on an unprecedented treble-treble of Olympic sprint titles, no community will be more captivated than this sleepy corner of Trelawny parish.

Bolt is not just one of their own, acclaimed as the returning hero whenever he saunters back on to the playing field of Waldensia primary school. He is also a figure whose other-worldly talents have been shaped by the lineage and lifestyle of people in this starkly beautiful slice of the island.

According to Maurice Wilson, technical director of Jamaica Olympic team, the local diet has had an effect on his exceptional physiology, and not just in the form of tamarinds - the sweets that Bolt's mother, Jennifer, ate during pregnancy and to which she has jokingly attributed his famous hyperactivity. "Look at all the yams they get through," Wilson says. "Yam is a highly fibrous carbohydrate food, which contains a substance, phytate, which can really assist with fast-twitch muscle fibres."

All athletes are products of their environment, but Bolt carries the influences of his upbringing more prominently than most. The Bolt we will remember long after Rio 2016, his final Games, is not just the history-maker, the freakish talent, but the fun-loving mischief artist whose vibrancy has illuminated track and field for a decade. These traits have their roots, too, in the sleepy ambience of backcountry Jamaica.

The connections become clear on a visit to William Knibb Memorial High School, Bolt's alma mater in nearby Falmouth, where his former mentors gather to share recollections of their most celebrated student.

For Webster Thompson, a senior teacher, the memories of Bolt's megawatt personality remain equally vivid. "Usain was a boys' boy, full of tricks and stories," he says, laughing indulgently. "He tended to be a prankster, leaping up behind people in corridors. It's a part of his victory formula even now. I guess he just doesn't allow anything to bother him beyond a certain point."

Even the 'Lightning Bolt', his patented victory pose, originated here. Pablo McNeil, his first athletics coach and a former two-time Olympic sprinter for Jamaica, coined the nickname as soon as he saw him run.

"McNeil was astonished at the boy's talent, but he didn't tell him how good he was, for fear of making him complacent," Thompson reflects. "He just saw him and marvelled to us: 'That boy doesn't know what he has'."

In many ways, those at William Knibb believe, Bolt still does not know. While he will be lauded for several lifetimes as the athlete who stretched the limits of human capability, the teachers cannot resist a lively debate about whether he truly understands the secrets to his greatness.

"I'm not sure that Usain has reached his zenith," Bromfield says. "What if he really focused?"

Thompson nods in agreement. "I feel that if Usain had dedicated just one year to training, cutting out all the partying, then there are no limits to what he could have achieved. On the other hand, one has to be careful, because that free-spiritedness is part of his verve and his vibe. You shouldn't try to kill who he is."

There is no athlete alive who could prepare for an Olympics in the manner that Bolt does. In his one competitive 100m race this season, at the Racers Grand Prix in Kingston in June, he had a dreadful start, eased up before the line, and still ran 9.88.

He was facing the elite of Jamaican sprinting, three of whom also dipped under 10 seconds, and he beat them having almost fallen over. Somehow, though, we still blithely assume that Bolt will get it right for Rio this weekend.

So, how does he do it?

Wilson was Bolt's coach when he made his international debut at the world juniors in Debrecen, Hungary, in 2001. He has been the Jamaican chef de mission of every Olympic team since Sydney 2000 and is convinced that the answer lies in an often unseen duality in the sprinter's character.

"I have watched him graduate from somebody who was playful to somebody who, when it is time for performance, is one of most dedicated athletes I've ever seen," he says. "The more his back is against the wall, the more dangerous he is. Don't be fooled by his humour. Behind that, he is a very intense individual."

It is tempting to suggest that this all goes back to the father. You would know it from Wellesley Bolt's carefree demeanour, as he watches the world go by from the front porch of his shop, but he has seldom been afraid of stressing to Usain the importance of discipline.

"His father slapped him once, when one of the teachers complained," Thompson recalls. "He has credited his parents for the fact that they did not allow him to get away with any nonsense. When Wellesley heard he was becoming a bit of a prima donna, he strolled over here and reminded him of the fact that he was a student. When his coach, Glen Mills, says, 'It's time for some work', he hears his father's voice."

The question of whether Bolt can eclipse Justin Gatlin tomorrow, and so become the first person to win three consecutive Olympic 100m golds, is not even an issue for those who know him best.

"I have never, ever seen anyone like Usain Bolt," Wilson says. "And I am not sure I ever will again." Pressed for a favourite Olympic memory from their time together, he does not hesitate. "What stands out in my mind is the 2008 final in Beijing, where he ran 9.69. When he dropped his hands before the line, and slapped his chest, I said to his coach, 'This guy is not for real'. I felt that I was watching a science-fiction movie.


"If he had run through the tape, the time would have been beyond phenomenal."

Under 9.58? "Oh, most definitely."

Bolt has claimed that he has one more barrier left to break. He has long held an affinity for the 200m, where he has surpassed Michael Johnson's once seemingly impregnable mark of 19.32 not once but twice, and has spoken enthusiastically in Rio about his desire to go under 19 seconds. It is a giddying admission, even by his standards, and not least because the 29-year-old Bolt has shown a few signs of fading from his peak.

Thompson, however, cautions against too many raised eyebrows. "The 200, he says he's going to go for it, and you can't doubt him," he argues. "When he says these things, both he and his coach already know what he is capable of. It goes right back to his fondness for childhood dares. 'I bet you can't beat me,' he would always say. He had a T-shirt printed recently that asked: 'Who faster?' It's Creole for, 'Who is the fastest?'" He cannot help but cackle at the audacity of it all. "Usain knows."

(© Daily Telegraph, London)


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