He is Brand Jamaica
It has gone largely unnoticed that Usain Bolt’s winning times at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro are the slowest he has ever produced in his successful pursuit of 13 individual global championships. Put another way, the Bolt of championships past would have beaten the majestic history-making 2016 Bolt handily. However, for Bolt, at this stage in his wonderful career, the times don’t matter.
His speed portfolio bulges with memorabilia. He ran the first of his 34 sub-20 200 metres races in 2003, months before his 17th birthday. It was a world junior record of 19.93 seconds and remains unchallenged 13 years later. Today, he turns 30 and faces a crossroads. With six World/Olympic titles and three world records in the 100 and seven such titles and two world records in the 200m, one could begrudge him if he never ran another step in his life.
The wear and tear of training to run 49 sub-10 second 100 metre races has sent him to the therapist’s bench more and more often. If he stopped running now, the combination of the wear and tear on a body once deemed too tall for sprinting and his unmatched success would be reason enough. By his own admission, he would miss the sport.
The sport would miss him. Not only is he lightning quick, but he is engaging, playful and charming. He is Brand Jamaica on fast forward.
Halfway through the 2008 Olympic 100 final, he looked to the heavens, thanked his heavenly Father and then beat his chest, all en route to a world record of 9.69 seconds and his first Olympic gold. It was to be the first of nine. When he crossed the line, reggae music boomed into the Bird’s Nest. He celebrated by joyfully dancing the Gully Creeper, the No Linger and the Sweep and by revealing his trademark ‘To the World’ pose.
Weeks later, he appeared on the ‘Tonight Show’ hosted then by David Letterman. Once he strode on to the set confidently and sat in his seat and looked Letterman in the eye, you could see he was a star. He was a lord to the manor born.
He hasn’t lost his human touch either. At the opening of a basketball court for the Jamaica Special Olympic team in 2015, he clocked an appearance for Digicel, a sponsor which has assisted him since 2004. Long after his duty was done, the tall man from Trelawny was still there shooting hoops with the special olympians. It was beautiful to watch.
If I were him, I might have retired in 2013. By then, he had already done the unprecedented Olympic ‘double-double’ by winning the 100m and 200m in both 2008 and 2012 and by regaining the World Championships 100 metres title in 2013. He had won it by improving his world record to 9.58 seconds in Berlin in 2009, but was eliminated by a false start in the 2011 final.
Thanks to his genius Racers Track Club coach Glen Mills, he stayed around long enough to win sprint doubles last year in a return to Beijing for the World Championships and now in Rio. It will be well nigh impossible for anyone to match his collection of three doubles each at the Olympics and at the World Championships.
Throughout his career, he has loved the fans and they have loved him back. Whether he goes now or next year after the World Championships, there is one fan who will probably miss him the most. On one of his many trips to run in Ostrava, in the Czech Republic, he was being led briskly to the public address announcer for a trackside interview. There was no time for him to do autographs until this young fan caught his eye. The catch was her face, which was painted black, green and gold. He stopped, chatted and signed autographs for this adoring fan.
At the same meet the following year, the same girl sat at the same spot but with a handful of her friends, all face-painted in the colours of the Jamaican flag. The tall man stopped again. The girl and her friends were delighted. This is what makes Usain Bolt a superstar of the highest order. He isn’t just the best sprinter of all time. He is Brand Jamaica.
* Hubert Lawrence has watched Bolt run since 2000.