Friday, August 14, 2009

Usain Bolt burdened with expectations at Berlin

What a poser: Usain Bolt shows off his Puma 'Bolt arms' in Berlin Photo: GETTY IMAGES

By Ian Chadband, Chief Sports Correspondent in Berlin
Published: 9:00PM BST 14 Aug 2009

Usain Bolt will not turn 23 until next Friday. In no particular order he enjoys cricket, yams, dancing, chilling and running very, very fast.

What he does not enjoy is making highfalutin pronouncements about his place in sporting history. He is a once-in-a-lifetime athlete but he is not a saviour.

You would not, however, have credited this fact here in Berlin. When the World Championships begin in the Olympic Stadium on Saturday and Bolt saunters to his blocks for the 100 metres heats, never before will the sport have invested so much so publicly on a single pair of shoulders and quicksilver feet.

Bolt is seen as the answer to the sport's every ailment, and there are many. Athletics has no characters any more? Here's the most charismatic in a generation. The sport can't sell tickets these days? It can when it pays Usain $250,000 per run. TV audiences are slumping? Train the camera on the posing archer.

Everybody expects miracles from the lad now. Even, apparently, Lamine Diack, the IAAF President, who was inspired to muse about the last time a global track championship came here at the 1936 Olympics.

"I was fortunate to have met Jesse Owens and spent some time with him. He was, without a doubt, not just an amazing athlete but an outstanding human being," noted Diack.

"So I would love someone like Usain Bolt to try and match Jesse Owens – not only on the track, but by setting an example outside the stadium as well. That is the secret."

No pressure then, Usain. It is now evidently not good enough just to be a freak sprinter. You must be Owens Mk II, following in the spike tracks of the most significant 100m run – and runner – of all-time; you must be a ground-breaking inspiration for the world's youth; you must transcend your sport.

The Jamaican sports minister Olivia Grange told The Daily Telegraph on Friday that "every young man wants to be Usain Bolt... in fact, I've had requests from various governments of other countries for him to visit so he can speak and motivate other young people".

According to her, he does a brilliant job but it is still possible to feel almost sorry for Bolt. Last year, if he had made a throwaway comment about Jamaican kids trying cannabis, nobody would have cared; 9.69 sec later, though, such honesty saw him get slaughtered.

He has had to grow up quick. Asked here on Thursday, amid the biggest media bun fight seen at these championships since the mid-Eighties days of Carl Lewis mania, whether he had come to terms with the magnitude of his Olympic achievements, he said warily and wearily: "I know what I did. And I know the responsibility that comes with it."

He wears that responsibility lightly and with natural charm but it must weigh heavy. Five of his compatriots, including a training partner Yohan Blake, are currently embroiled in controversy after testing positive at their national championships. Yesterday they learned that no decision about whether they could run here would be made until Monday.

Another depressing prelude to a championship then, but Bolt is seen as the antidote to cynicism. Regularly, you can hear the lament that if ever he failed a drugs test, it would finish athletics. He has to be seen as cleaner than clean.

When this championship was first staged in 1983, it was built on a host of marquee names such as Lewis, Ed Moses, Daley Thompson, Mary Decker, Grete Waitz and Steve Ovett. It helped make other names such as Steve Cram and Sergei Bubka.

Here? He is a man alone. Yelena Isinbayeva, the Russian pole vault queen, may possess glamour and unique ability and Tyson Gay may be the quality foil in the sprints, but one man is being asked to carry the whole show.

And that isn't possible for one man. The ills of athletics cannot be solved by Bolt's brilliance, only camouflaged. The suggestions here that less than a third of tickets have been sold for the evening sessions on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday in the 74,000-seat stadium illustrate that only too well.

Bolt's biggest problem is having to follow his own vapour trail. How can he top Beijing? "I don't know," he shrugs. The hope is that Gay will push him to further uncharted territory in human endeavour come Sunday night. Anything else will be considered a let down. How unfair would that be?

As he was being revered on Thursday, what must his mother Jennifer have made of all the madness? One imagined that, like the mum in Life of Brian, she must have been tempted to jump up with the cry: "He's not the Messiah! He's a very fast boy..." This is our chance to enjoy Bolt, not to deify him.

© Copyright of Telegraph Media Group Limited 2009

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