It was 17 years ago in Jamaica when a relative of mine said to me “Reggie Bolt have one relative, him fast you see Gary”.
Now the late Reggie Bolt was a childhood friend of my dad who grew up in the Davis District near Old Harbour during the 1920s-1950s. Reggie eventually migrated – like my dad – to England in the 1950s. Reggie passed away in the 1990s.
Never thought much about my relative’s comments as in Jamaica everyone knows someone who has seen a child who can run very fast!
Then in 2002 I saw the high school champs results in the local paper and there was Bolt’s name in the race results.
But when Bolt won so emphatically at the World Juniors I had caught a bit of Bolt fever.
It was now my turn to tell folks in London that Bolt will be the next star of athletics and that Michael Johnson’s 200 metres world record is toast.
When Bolt moved to the senior level I was hyping his expectations at various upcoming major events between 2005 & 2007. But Bolt’s ascendancy stalled due to injuries or some below star performances.
Then in 2008 the Bolt phenomenon took off courtesy of his world records and Olympic gold medal exploits in Beijing. I felt relieved about my hyping of the young man.
In June 2009 I was in the departure lounge at Kingston’s international airport heading home to London. As I browsed the merchandise in a gift shop I heard a crashing sound. I turned to see Usain Bolt laying across the counter chatting playfully to the 2 female staff.
Stunned, I pointed at Bolt and said “Don’t Move!” as I rummaged through my bag for the camera.
Bolt willingly posed for photos (now lost) and we had a good chat. He too was heading to London but on a different flight to mine. The departures area was filled with athletes heading to Europe following Jamaica’s national trials.
I was struck by Bolt’s humility and his maturity. Looking back what also hit me was that there was this young global superstar in a small shop with no handlers, no agent chatting willingly to little old me.
At the end of our chat I told Bolt I will see him race in London at an athletics event in Crystal Palace weeks later.
Seeing Bolt race in the flesh at full tilt is something else. That cold wet evening at Crystal Palace Bolt blew away his rivals.
But as he did his lap of honour he spotted me and gave a nod. For that minute you could imagine one’s ego in the stands. I was also struck by how fast he ‘jogged’ his lap of honour!
It was at that Crystal Palace meet where I saw firsthand the star appeal of Bolt to young fans. In all the major events I ever attended I had never seen hundreds of children gravitate comfortably to a personality as they did to Bolt.
To me Jamaica on a whole took longer to fully appreciate Bolt’s star appeal than say the European public.
At that time many Jamaicans I knew still held Asafa Powell in a much higher regard than Bolt despite Bolt’s stunning achievements in the 2008 – 2012 period. Some spoke out against his playful behavior before in the races. Some had described Bolt as a clown.
Many would continue to doubt Bolt’s chances of winning gold medals at every major championships he participated.
(Who can forget when Bolt returned from Beijing in 2008 and was greeted at Kingston’s airport by fans, wagonists and politicians? Only for the then Prime Minister Bruce Golding to address Bolt as “Asafa”.)
We must not forget that some top sporting officials were not impressed by Bolt’s pre race behaviour and post race celebrations. e.g. former Olympics chief Jacques Rogge.
Former top sprinters such as Carl Lewis and Maurice Greene found it difficult for years to pay Bolt any genuine credit. Lewis in particular just kept sniping innuendos at Bolt.
But former sprinters such as Ato Bolden, Michael Johnson and Darren Campbell fully appreciated the excellence of Usain Bolt.
Usain Bolt gave Jamaica immense credibility and publicity across the globe. More than it deserved at times. Even this week after relay disappointment the anti-Bolt brigade has resurfaced again in Jamaica.
Bolt the man was beyond sport and moved at great speed into popular culture across the globe and stayed there.
The best example of Bolt’s stardom for me was in 2009 when he kicked off a football match in Spain that included Real Madrid.
I feel one of Bolt’s greatest off the track achievements was forcing the UK government to change their tax laws on non-UK resident athletes appearing at local meets. Previously the UK would tax visiting athletes on their entire worldwide earnings and not what was earned solely in the UK.
My only slight (greedy-of-me) criticism of Bolt was that in the last 5 years he rarely raced his main rivals such as Justin Gatlin outside of major championships.
Disappointed too that Bolt and his training partner Yohan Blake agreed in later years never to face each other in non championship races. Especially after Blake became a genuine rival in 2011.
Such moves just robbed the fans of regular sprinting battles that would have boosted the sport’s overall popularity.
Imagine if in tennis Federer and Nadal faced each other just once or twice a year?
Many say Bolt is the greatest athlete of all time but that is just bar or Facebook talk. Bolt is the best of his generation. He is definitely one of the most charismatic human beings the world has seen.
I could never say compare Bolt’s on-the-track exploits with the likes of say Jesse Owens, Fanny Blankers-Koen, Bob Hayes, Wilma Rudolph, Edwin Moses and Tommie Smith. Bolt and these former sprinters were great for their respective eras.
E.g. Tommie Smith’s (who once held 11 sprint world records) ascendancy to greatness was blocked due to his civil rights stance in Mexico 1968.
These other greats ran on inferior surfaces, were amateurs and thus could never afford the luxury of running in multiple Olympic Games. There was no such thing as a World Championship for athletes until 1983.
For Bolt to stay at the top for over a decade has been truly remarkable. Greatest of all time is relative.
No surprise that Bolt lost the 100 metres in London last week. He was just never 100% prepared or fit.
When your surname is Bolt and you are the fastest man in the world you are a gift to the advertising industry; especially with an engaging personality like Usain. I am so pleased Bolt maximised his popularity to good use and made himself a very rich man.
Will Usain Bolt return to the track? I hope so. For one last stab at his favourite distance – 200 metres. Yet the injury he suffered in London looks far more serious than was earlier reported.
If he does not return to the track, then thank you Mr Usain Bolt you made the world smile. You epitomized that popular mantra of enjoying your profession & have fun doing it.
Given Bolt’s girlfriend Kasi Bennett’s roots is 5 streets away from my parent’s home in Old Harbour I am sure we will see him and around the local area.
If only Reggie Bolt had lived to witness the illustrious career of one his own.