Bolt can't forget roots on the fast track to fame

Published Jul 07, 2012 01:50pm

Like so many kids in Jamaica, Bolt played football and cricket and ran a little. By the time he was 12, though, it was undeniable: He was not an average kid. -Photo by Reuters

KINGSTON: Finding out where Usain Bolt might be on any given day on his home island of Jamaica in advance of his trip to the London Olympics - that's not so difficult.

Finding out who Bolt really is - that's a trickier task.

Of course, he's the defending Olympic champion and world-record holder in the 100, 200 and 400-meter relay.

Almost everything else is open for interpretation.

Self-effacing everyman or pretentious star? Ultra-driven freak of nature or fundamentally laid-back fellow? Meticulous or reckless? Man of the people or a prima donna better appreciated from afar?

These are the type of questions coursing through the small Caribbean island since The Honourable Usain St. Leo Bolt pronounced his noble goal: Winning three gold medals again and returning home from London as nothing less than a “living legend.”

The search for answers might begin at the University of the West Indies, in a neighborhood on the northwest part of Kingston called Mona Heights.

“He comes here almost every day, and usually, you don't even know he's here,” says Denzel Gordon, who mans the entrance to the swimming pool across the street from the track where Bolt trains.

Gordon points to a bunch of coconuts sitting on a table behind him: “He comes over when he's done running. Cracks it open himself. Drinks the water right out of the shell. Just like anyone else. You wouldn't even know it's Bolt.”

Across the street from the pool, it's not uncommon to catch a glimpse of Bolt warming up or running sprints on the blue polyurethane track, one of the nicer ovals in a country that loves its sports but has precious little money to finance them. There's a 30-foot-high fence with a padlocked gate that keeps uninvited guests from getting too close.

If word filters out that Bolt is there, a few dozen people, mostly students, might wander over to see what the World's Fastest Man is up to. If one of those people offers the security guard behind the fence a cigarette or two, the guard might point out a spot a little further down the fence line where there's a particularly good view.

“He has the hope of a nation in his hands,” one of the onlookers, Alan Martin, said recently, before the nation's Olympic trials began.

“I was hoping I'd get a chance to talk to him. He represents us very well. We all just want him to be very careful.”

Martin was so unnerved after Bolt's latest car accident, he sent him a letter.

“Just want him to know that he's a voice around the world,” Martin said.

“He's not just doing this for himself. Something like that happens, and it's very concerning.”

While track enthusiasts around the world talk about whether Bolt can run the 100 in 9.4 seconds or finish the 200 in less than 19 (the current records are 9.58 and 19.19), it's the car accident during the wee hours of June 10 that starts many of the conversations on the island these days.

His handlers called it a minor fender-bender, and there's no indication it was anything more. But given Bolt's history - three previous accidents, including one in 2009 that left him scrambling out of his totaled car in the bottom of a ditch - nobody's quite sure what to make of it except: What was he doing out at 5 in the morning?

“Many people believe he's trying to follow Asafa (Powell), who is more adept at cars,” says track fan Junior Anthony Clarke, referring to another of Jamaica's famous sprinters.

“He wants to prove that he's not only fast on the track, he's fast on the road. But Jamaicans would feel hurt if he does something to hurt himself. Because we feel like he and us are one.”

It was Powell's 100-meter world record of 9.74 seconds that Bolt broke for the first time in May 2008 and has since lowered twice more. Bolt has eclipsed Powell on the track, but Powell is viewed by many in Jamaica as the down-to-earth guy who's more like them. Or, as some like to say, the world loves Bolt; Jamaica loves Asafa.

“People say Bob Marley is the most famous person to come out of Jamaica, but then they'll say Usain's name in the same breath,” says Bolt's agent, Ricky Simms.

“He's a great ambassador for the country. But people are always quick to criticize, too. And this country, they like the underdog, so some of that can work against Bolt. You can't keep all the people happy all the time.”

Bolt, however, claims to try.

In his autobiography, he goes on at length about the responsibility of signing every autograph, of trying to fit in, at least as much as a 6-foot-5 superstar can in a society that adores him yet wants a piece of him at almost every turn.

To help quell this craving, Bolt might, on occasion, be spotted spinning records at his own place - a restaurant-sports bar-night club called Tracks and Records, where the DJ booth sits in a darkened corner in the balcony, overlooking a 200-seat main floor with TVs, a huge bar, a few “VIP” areas and even a shop to buy Usain Bolt merchandise.

One waiter said Bolt shows up from time to time, but it's often early in the evening. He's known as a start-late, finish-late kind of guy, and it's never a huge surprise to spot him at a nightclub somewhere in the trendier area of New Kingston.

“I have to relax and enjoy life to get the best out of myself,” Bolt wrote in his autobiography, in which he concedes he would have won many gold medals if they were handed out for partying.

“If I did everything by the book, I'd be a very dull boy and I'm sure it would have a negative effect on my running.”

He likes cool cars and says he has two Hondas (involved in the minor wrecks), a BMW (besides the one he totaled), a Nissan GTR Skyline (he calls it his “Batmobile”), a Toyota Tundra (the prize for breaking the world record the first time) and an Audi Q7 (black, like all the other cars).

Stories about his diet? All true. Setting three world records on a strict intake of Chicken McNuggets. Happened. He's good about staying hydrated, though at times, he's as likely to fill up with a pint of Guinness - “It supposedly does you good because of the nutrients,” he wrote in his book - as the endless supply of Gatorade that stocks his refrigerator thanks to a sponsorship deal.

One of his favorite dishes is his Aunt Lilly's pork, served with dumplings, banana and yam. As a kid growing up in Sherwood Content, across the island from Kingston in the rural parish of Trelawney, Bolt used to go to Lilly's house for the good food and maybe a break from his father, Wellesley, who was known as quite a taskmaster. “Bolt,” his dad would yell, and the youngster knew he was in trouble.

The people who grew up with him in Trelawney still call Bolt “VJ,” and he says he still goes back home when the stress of Kingston starts wearing on him.

He credits his upbringing in Trelawney, and most notably his father's influence, for instilling in him the work ethic that helped turn him into a champion.

“His parents brought a lot of discipline and respect for elders into the equation,” Simms said.

“He grew up in the country, so he was brought up like that. He's got good people around him. His coach has those kind of values, wants his athletes to act well.”

Like so many kids in Jamaica, Bolt played football and cricket and ran a little. By the time he was 12, though, it was undeniable: He was not an average kid.

So, off to William Knibb High School he went - a top school in Trelawney where he received a sports scholarship but had to work hard in the classroom to maintain it. As he neared college age, he attended the High Performance Training Center in Kingston to become a full-time athlete.

The high performance center is located within the University of Technology in Kingston, a 45-acre campus with about two dozen two- and three-story buildings and a rather unimpressive track that was overgrown with grass on a recent day in late June.

Bolt doesn't write kindly about his time there, saying he blossomed on the track when he left one coach there for another - Glen Mills.

It was Mills who helped Bolt develop a stretching routine for his scoliosis - he was born with one leg longer than the other - and has transformed him into the champion he is today.

Mills, along with a small stable of handlers, also are charged with the task of keeping Bolt's feet planted firmly on the ground, making sure he doesn't forget what got him to the top.

To hear Mills - and Bolt - tell it, that's a full-time job.

“The major thing that's been new for him is the increased publicity and public demand for interviews and sponsors,” Mills said.

There's also been the newfound wealth, which allowed Bolt to buy a house on Long Mountain, Kingston's most exclusive neighborhood.

From the outside, it looks like a South Florida mansion. Inside, based on pictures in his book, it looks like, well, where any 25-year-old would live: Flat-screen TV and video games in the living room, a refrigerator stuffed with Gatorade and not much else, a few framed pictures, newspaper clippings on the walls and a table where he and his closest friends play dominoes before they go out at night.

“He's a down-to-earth guy,” says 400-meter Olympian Jermaine Gonzalez, who trains with Bolt and became friends with him shortly after the move to Kingston.

“Jovial. A people's person. Yeah, he could be a bit more serious, but that doesn't mean he's not serious. He's just never going to be the kind of guy who does nothing but track. He enjoys himself.”

At the recent Olympic trials, Bolt finished a surprising second to his training partner, Yohan Blake, in both the 100 and 200. A few days later, he pulled out of a tuneup race in Monaco because of an injury he deemed “minor” - something he suffered at trials, where a trainer worked on his right hamstring moments after his second-place finish in the 200.

“I don't want to get into that,” Bolt said that night, when asked about the leg.

“I'm not far off. I can get it done.”

Bolt, Blake and Mills all conceded that Blake was the better-conditioned athlete coming into trials. That's not to say Bolt doesn't work hard. He is, however, one of those rare athletes who makes everything look easy, which sometimes can work to his detriment.

After his performance at National Stadium, there were questions about whether Bolt has fully grasped the challenge, and the challenger, for these Olympics.

“I never train for one person,” Bolt said. “Everyone is talking about Yohan Blake and he is proving himself as one of the greatest. But for me, it's going back to training, getting back to work and getting done what I've got to get done.”

Those who can't get to the fence near the training track will have to wait until Aug. 4 to see where Bolt really stands. That's the night of preliminary heats in the Olympic 100 meters. The next night, if everything goes according to plan, he'll have the rematch with Blake. Americans Tyson Gay and Justin Gatlin should also be there to challenge.

Until then, the story in track - as it has been for the last four years - is Bolt.


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