It’s quite a sight, if you can stand the smell. Opposite the National Stadium in Kingston, Jamaica, you’ll catch a glimpse of it as you turn left on to Roosevelt Avenue: the Wall of Honour. A stretch of sun-baked, whitewashed wall nearly 50 yards long, next to a drainage canal, with each segment celebrating a sporting hero from the island. Given Jamaica’s love of cricket, the sport is featured prominently, with Michael Holding, Lawrence “Yagga” Rowe and Courtney Walsh all painted in vivid colours. There’s also the man born in Panama and blessed with such sublime batting talent that indignant Jamaicans repudiate the sobriquet of The Black Bradman, preferring instead to call Sir Donald Bradman The White (George) Headley.
Wonderwall: The Wall of Honour near the National Stadium in Kingston, Jamaica, celebrates the country’s sporting legends. Dileep Premachandran
If he hadn’t chosen to become the most freakishly gifted athlete that the world has ever seen, Usain Bolt might one day have been on that wall as a cricketer. Speaking to the BBC earlier this year, while England were being routed at a cacophonic Sabina Park, he said: “I was a good fast bowler as a youngster. I was quick and I also batted. I was actually good at it. The person I looked up to was Waqar Younis because he had a great inswinging yorker. He was wonderful. Pakistan was my team when I was 6, when I started watching cricket. I enjoyed watching them play.”
No postcards from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad then. But back home in Jamaica, they may have to create a new section of wall just for Bolt, the chicken-nugget-munching, car-crashing champion who makes his peers look like they’re running to stand still. After his conquest of Berlin—the organizers gifted him a piece of the erstwhile Berlin Wall to take home—Bolt couldn’t be accused of false modesty when he was asked how his compatriots regarded him. “Everybody knows my name,” he said with that infectious grin. “I’m as big as Bob Marley because my name is really everywhere, like Bob Marley’s was when he was alive. I have one of the rarest talents you’ll ever find.”
You won’t spend half an hour in Jamaica without hearing the strains of some Marley classic, whether it be No Woman, No Cry or the magnificent One Love, which the BBC declared to be the song of the 20th century a few years ago. And just as Marley was shaped by the impressionable years spent in the village of Nine Mile, so Bolt has been moulded by a pastoral upbringing in Sherwood Content in the parish of Trelawny. And if his father, Wellesley, is to be believed, one of the secrets of the Bolt speed is the yam that grows plentifully there.
Bolt’s achievements must not be viewed in isolation, though. He only happens to be the latest link in a sprinting chain that goes back more than 60 years to the wonderfully versatile Herb McKenley. Arthur Wint, Jamaica’s first Olympic gold medallist (London, 1948, 400m; McKenley took silver) is the first portrait on the Wall of Honour, and Donald Quarrie, who won the 200m gold nearly three decades later, was so highly regarded that he even became part of daily speak—“I ran so fast, maan, not even Don Quarrie coulda caught I.”
Citius: Usain Bolt’s long stride, combined with his lithe frame and impressive height, lets him cover a 100m sprint in 41 or 42 steps, while most athletes would need at least 45. David J Phillip / AP
What Bolt has done in the space of just 12 months, though, is to relegate even these exceptional athletes to the periphery. When Quarrie won gold in Montreal, his time was 20.22. Bolt ran over a second faster in Berlin, and that too after a car accident that meant he couldn’t practise his bend running for months. To truly fathom what he has done to sprinting, it’s best to listen to one of the finest 100m runners from the generation that preceded him, Trinidad’s Ato Bolden. After Bolt had fried the opposition inside the Bird’s Nest in Beijing last year, Bolden said: “Swimming has its LZR suits and deeper pools. We have a 6ft 5-inch guy that’s running 9.6s and beating the rest of the Olympic field by two-tenths of a second. He’s our new technology.”
Bolt’s height is what makes him so unusual. Sprinters, right from the days of Harold Abrahams (of Chariots of Fire fame) through Jesse Owens and up to Maurice Greene, were men of medium height, some lithe and some extremely well-muscled. Bolt has plenty of muscle on a lithe frame, and a loping stride that makes his opponents look like they’ve come from Lilliput. Most sprinters take 45 or 46 strides to cover the 100m. Bolt usually needs only 40 or 41. Unless he starts really poorly, those next to him have no chance. Once that gigantic frame uncoils from the crouched start and the stride pattern is set, it’s like watching someone with afterburners strapped to him.
Bolt’s importance to his sport transcends mere records though. After a succession of drug scandals involving the likes of Marion Jones, the very credibility of athletics was at stake. It needed someone with magic in his feet and oodles of charisma to bring the crowds back. In Berlin, on the days when Bolt wasn’t racing, many of the stands were half-empty. When he was in action, there was bedlam. If the “arrogance” and showboating that he has been accused of is what people come to see, we can only hope that there’s much more of it.
Still only 23, where does Bolt go from here? There’s talk of competing in the long jump, and perhaps looking to match the four-gold hauls of Owens and Carl Lewis. There might also be a desire to move up to 400m, a distance that he ran in his teens. There are unquestionably more golds to win, more records to shatter. There are also cautionary tales to keep in mind, should others attempt to lead him astray. Just over two decades ago, another Trelawny boy (albeit wearing a Canadian vest) blitzed his way to the tape in Seoul in 9.79 seconds. A few days later, he was heading home, consigned to pariah status forever. His name? Ben Johnson.
Dileep Premachandran is associate editor of Cricinfo and Asian cricket correspondent for The Sunday Times and The Guardian.
Write to email@example.com