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Tuesday, July 24, 2012
Bolt, Jamaica prepare for Act II

By Luke Cyphers

Usain Bolt

KINGSTON, Jamaica -- You can't hear yourself think.

The vuvuzelas, air horns, ThunderStix, cheers of grown men and shrieks of teenage girls drown out even the voices in people's minds. All one can do is watch genuine fanaticism take its course, as a jolly giant who just covered 100 meters in 9.82 seconds jogs to and fro on a berm before a sea of yellow- and green-clad patrons at Jamaica's National Stadium.

The place is nicknamed "The Office" for the way the country's soccer team took care of business during a 50-game unbeaten streak more than a decade ago; it is anything but officious right now, as the Big Man soaks in adulation.

Each slap of a spectator's palm, each wave of his hand and the removal of his shirt -- especially that -- sends another jolt of energy through the crowd, which reverberates around the stadium and rebounds off the lush mountainside to the east before wafting into the tropical gloaming.

Usain Bolt, citizen of the world, creature of the night, ambassador of fun, is home. And on this balmy May evening, after an easy victory in the Jamaica Invitational IAAF meet, home is happy to have him. "It's amazing to see so many people," Bolt says, "because I live off the crowd. It's a wonderful feeling."

His bouncing on the berm is supposed to be a cool-down for his uncommon musculature. In actuality, it may be just a warm-up, a prelude, a literal run-through, for what everyone here hopes will happen on Aug. 6.

Yohan Blake
Yohan Blake got the best of countryman Usain Bolt at the Jamaican Olympic trials.

On that day, the nation of Jamaica will celebrate the 50th anniversary of its independence, its golden jubilee; and, in England, the London Olympics will hold the medal ceremony for the men's 100-meter race. A flag will be raised for each of the top three finishers, and quite a few people in this stadium believe in their hearts that three Jamaican men will stand on those steps to receive the gold, silver and bronze medals, and three Jamaican flags will rise to the strains of the country's national anthem, "Jamaica, Land We Love."

"Jamaicans have expectations for London 2012 around the sprints, and an expectation that the 100 meters will be a Jamaican celebration," says Dr. Donna Hope, a lecturer on Reggae Studies at the University of the West Indies in Kingston.

Adds her colleague at UWI, sports historian Julian Cresser, "The Olympics in London is a perfect showcase to celebrate our independence in front of the world. The country is trying to get as much mileage out of it as it can."

And why not? Jamaica has been the unquestioned power in the world of sprinting ever since Bolt floated across the finish line in world-record time in the 100 at the 2008 Beijing Games. Over the past two years, especially, a sweep of the 100 in London looked not just like a possibility, but a smart bet. Because Bolt, while a singular talent -- "a lodestone figure," as Hope calls him -- is not alone.

Six of the top seven 100-meter times in the world this year have been run by Bolt or Jamaican teammates Yohan Blake and Asafa Powell. In fact, Blake beat Bolt convincingly in both the 100 and 200 meters at the Jamaican Olympic trials. Which is why, just as the country appears to be on the verge of yet more triumph, many of the same folks cheering Bolt in May are now slightly on edge.

Just a month after Bolt won his race here, he crashed his BMW into a guardrail at around 5 a.m. on the way back from a party in Kingston. Bolt is not an excellent driver (he wrecked a BMW in 2009, too), so this mishap may have been brushed off had it not been for his performance at the Jamaican trials a few weeks later. But the incident drew rare criticism from Jamaicans, and his withdrawal from his final Olympic tune-up meet in Monaco for an undisclosed "slight" injury is causing more worry.

Bolt ushered in new notions of what was humanly possible with his world records at the 2008 Games and 2009 world championships in Berlin, where he ran 9.58 in the 100 and an astonishing 19.19 in the 200. In the trials against Blake, however, Bolt looked possibly human, crawling out of the blocks in the 100 to finish in 9.86 and being overtaken in the final 50 meters of the 200 to finish .03 seconds behind Blake's 19.80, the best time in the world this year.

Still, a defective Bolt is still better than most sprinters in the world. The top American challengers, Tyson Gay and Justin Gatlin in the 100, and Bolt's buddy Wallace Spearmon in the 200, have no room for error if they are to make the podium.

The Americans know this. "I think it will take 19.5 to medal in the 200," Spearmon says. But he's also defiant. "No one's going to hand Bolt, Blake or Asafa a medal. If they get them, they're definitely going to have to earn it."

Even with its lodestone laden with doubt, Jamaica still looks capable of earning a sweep in the 100 and is still favored to go 1-2 in the 200. That speaks to the depth of athletes in this nation of 3 million people, and the success of Bolt, Blake & Co. almost assures the pool of talent will continue to be filled.

Odean Skeen
Odean Skeen could be Jamaica's next big running star.

Growing the sprinting culture

They are called the Penn Relays, but the crowd at Franklin Field says otherwise. It is bundled in green and gold and sports Jamaican flags; then, there are the high schoolers on the track below, wearing uniforms from places like St. Jago and Vere Tech and Calabar (33 Jamaican schools in all). "This is like a home crowd," says Christopher Harley, the assistant coach at Wolmer's Boys School in Kingston.

The Penn Relays come in April, just weeks after the Jamaican prep championships, known to everyone on the island as "Champs." The teams of teen islanders head north to Pennsylvania in peak condition, having just run in a nationally televised competition that fills National Stadium for the better part of a week. Alums of every Jamaican high school come from every part of the world to see the boys and girls run. It's March Madness in spikes, with far more passion. After Champs, running in front of 40,000 in Philly against the best America has to offer is a little like the Pro Bowl, but that doesn't stop Jamaica from dominating.

In the boys' 4x100 elite race, Jamaican teams went 1-2-3, led by Wolmer's, which won its third straight Penn Relays title. The baton-passing was flawless and the speed on display breathtaking, especially when Odean Skeen took the stick on the second leg. He flew down the backstretch and looked every bit like the next big thing, giving Wolmer's an insurmountable lead on the way to victory in 40.34 seconds over Jamaica College and Herbert Morrison.

Skeen has his sights set on being the first Jamaican high schooler to break 10 seconds in the 100 meters, and with a year left, he's on pace. He won the bronze medal this summer at the world junior championships in Barcelona, equaling Blake's junior showing in 2004 and crossing the line in a PR of 10.25. "Sometimes I hide from training," he admits, "but when I put my mind to it, I can do anything."

Generally, he can't hide for long. Everyone knows about Skeen, even Powell, with whom he has had conversations about sprinting and sports cars. "Old-school cars, Ferraris," Skeen says. The country just isn't that big, and stars like Blake and Powell enjoy visiting schools and seeing the up-and-comers.

Jamaica's sprint culture grows up in tandem with the school system. From the beginning, it's quite fun, and quite serious. Sanya Richards-Ross, the American 400-meter queen, grew up in Jamaica until she was 12, and she recalls working on block starts and running races in front of big crowds by age 8.

The youngsters train for the duration of the school year, about nine months. But there seems to be a consensus not to overtrain. Harley, who coaches at Wolmer's, says every child at his school is shut down for at least three months. If a star like Skeen runs international meets in the summer, he won't start training for the next season until November. Training starts slowly every year and builds gradually.

Promising runners like Skeen are identified at the grammar school level and recruited to schools when they are 12 or 13, often moving across the country and staying with host families. But the school facilities themselves are often humble. A week after Penn Relays at Wolmer's on the eve of the Jamaican Invitational, Skeen and 4x100 anchor man Yanick Hart ran laps in bright gold jerseys around a gravel-packed grass field also used for soccer and cricket. There are some stray hurdles, along with stray dogs just outside the fence, but there isn't a track anywhere in sight.

"This is it," laughs Harley, pointing to a worn path hugging the fence.

Before, it was like a boxing mentality among sprinters. Now Usain's friends with everybody, and there's not that same kind of tension. People talk to each other.

-- Usain Bolt's agent, Ricky Simms, on the change in the competitive culture of track and field

Yet it works. Hart, a confident 17-year-old with a pretty good mustache for his age, shows the possibilities of the system, not just to generate athletes but also real students and leaders.

"My grades are good," he says. "And my teammates saw qualities in me and thought I was suitable to lead them."

He started as an 800 runner because he admired the great Ethiopian distance runner Haile Gebrselassie, but Wolmer's made him a 110-meter hurdler, and his work ethic turned him into a sprinter. "I'm what you'd call a developed talent," he says. "I'm not one you could just say, 'Oh, this guy's fast,' like Skeen. I had to train hard."

Training hard creates rewards. Hart is looking to go to UCLA to hone his hurdling technique and earn a business degree. In the meantime, he likes being carried along in the river of talent that is Jamaica's high school sprinting scene.

"We have a lot of people looking for the next big thing," Hart says. "Not Wolmer's alone, but other schools in Jamaica, as well. They find talent, and when you find talent and see it executed well in the right stages, like Odean Skeen or Yohan Blake, you have to keep up to that standard, which is expected of us."

That standard has applied almost exclusively to sprinting, but that may be changing. In recent years at youth levels, Jamaica has started to produce successful field-event athletes. One of them is Christophe Bryan, who won the high jump at the Penn Relays for Wolmer's with a leap of 6-9, and who has a personal record of 7-2 that he set last February before he turned 16. U.S. colleges have contacted him, but he still has three years of high school left, "so I don't pay that any mind. [Long term] my goal is to win an Olympic medal, a world championship medal and also to attempt to break the world record," he says. "If I stay injury-free, I can get there."

History of pride

Jamaica has long had a can-do attitude in track. Arthur Wint and Herb McKenley went 1-2 in the 400 in 1948 and led Jamaica's 4x400 relay to a thrilling gold in 1952 in Helsinki, while Donald Quarrie took gold in the 200 in Montreal in 1976. Statues of McKenley and Quarrie line the entrance to National Stadium. But in the early years of independence, cricket played a more important role in the nation's sports psyche, Cresser says. "In an atmosphere of cultural imperialism, sport was the only aspect where we had the opportunity to succeed," he says.

Jamaicans starred on many of the great West Indian cricket teams that dominated the sport in the 1970s through the '90s, putting the former Caribbean colonies on equal or better athletic footing with their former imperial rulers.

But as the country's cricket success faded and its soccer teams stagnated after a World Cup appearance in 1998, track athletes began rising, then rushing to the fore. Merlene Ottey put together a remarkable string of Olympic success, winning nine medals, though none of them gold, from 1980 through 2000. She set the table for the emergence of Veronica Campbell-Brown, who won gold in the 200 in 2004 and 2008, and Powell, a homegrown sprinter who chose to stay in Jamaica rather than attend a U.S. college. He developed into the world's fastest man, lowering the 100 world record three times in 2005-07, and, at 6-foot-3, debunking the myth that tall sprinters couldn't get out of the blocks well. And Powell, in turn, set the stage for Bolt and Blake.

But what really changed was something structural, Cresser says. While the school development model was always successful in churning out potential stars in high school, "It was largely due to volunteers."

Until two college coaches -- Stephen Francis at Jamaica's University of Technology, or UTech, and Glen Mills from UWI -- began luring homegrown stars to their college programs and forming professional clubs alongside them. Francis' MVP Track Club signed Powell and put together a group of top women, including Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Sherone Simpson, while Mills' UWI group, which later morphed into the Racers Track Club, took in Bolt and Blake.

Able to sign sponsorship contracts while training full time and spurn the advances of U.S. colleges while avoiding their amateurism rules, the trend culminated in Jamaica's 11 sprint medals, including six golds, at the Beijing Olympics. "The success of 2008 was largely due to these two groups and what they were doing," Cresser says.

When Blake emerged out of Mills' Racers group last year, winning the world championship in the 100 after Bolt's famous false start and running the second-fastest 200 ever last summer, the supply of Jamaican sprinters appeared inexhaustible (so much so that the strong contingent of women's sprinters often seems a bit overlooked). Fraser-Pryce jokes about going to the market and being recognized by fans. "Hi Shelly," they say, then quickly get to their real interest. "How's Usain? How's Asafa?"

The principals in this revolution all seem to get along. The 29-year-old Powell has never won a major competition and acts as if he'd be content just to win bronze in the 100, take gold in the 4x100 relay and sprint off into the sunset.

Bolt and Blake, meanwhile, say all the right things. They are, after all, training partners. Off the track, they don't hang out much. The 5-11 Blake, who at 22 is three years younger than Bolt, admits a desire to step out of the Big Man's shadow. But both are quick to play up their friendship; Bolt gave Blake his nickname, "The Beast," and Blake rather enjoys it.

"When I get Christmas break, I still train," Blake says. "When you guys are sleeping, I'm out there working, and that's why they call me The Beast. I work twice as hard as everybody else. That's my secret. I go covert."

Bolt, in contrast, is partying while others are sleeping. "He's not the kind of guy to read a book at night," says Bolt's agent, Ricky Simms. "He likes people. He likes to mingle and get to know them. He's a night person."

On the track, Bolt's posing at the starting line, his dancing at the finish, his love of Jamaica's Dancehall music culture, have all transformed what people thought of sprinters at the turn of the century. Back then, stars like Maurice Greene seemed to be at war; anger and trash talking brought currency and legitimacy.

Bolt changed that. "Before, it was like a boxing mentality among sprinters," Simms says. "Now Usain's friends with everybody, and there's not that same kind of tension. People talk to each other."

The world-record holder plays video games online with Spearmon, his rival in the 200, and the two often vacation together in the offseason. Last winter, it was Vegas. "I was ready to go home by the end of it," Spearmon says, laughing.

Bolt has said all year his goal is "legend" status, being at the top for a sustained period. That's why Simms has insisted on limiting his media appearances in the lead-up to the London Olympics, despite, at times, receiving hundreds of interview requests a week. Simms says all that can dry up if Bolt quits winning, and Bolt is more focused than at any time since 2008.

The June car accident, and the fact that he was seen out late the night before the Jamaican trials started, would seem to undercut that. But Simms also says Bolt knows himself, and he can get fit more quickly than anyone else in the world. With more than a month of preparation between the trials and Olympics, it's unwise to start writing his career obituary.

Yet Bolt's fitness isn't the only question ahead of the Games. Whenever there's a seemingly quick ascent to success in track and field, doping questions arise. They did with Bolt in 2008, simply because of his history-shattering times; and they are with Blake, partly because of a positive test for a banned stimulant in 2009 that landed him a three-month suspension and partly due to the massive drop in his 200 time. As the Chicago Tribune's Phillip Hersh pointed out, Blake improved his 200 time by "a startling 6.4 percent" in just two seasons.

At a certain point, though, Jamaicans won't care. Their biggest stars haven't been caught using steroids, and there's a sentiment that the rumors are fueled by mere jealousy. Their country will come to a standstill during the Games, just as it did in 2008, with massive open-air video screens showing the races to thousands of fans at Halfway Tree, a public gathering place in Kingston near the spot where Bolt crashed his car this summer.

Jamaicans understandably feel pride in their accomplishments. What they have achieved is remarkable, by any measure, for any country. It's something almost impossible to imagine back in 1962, when the country was born.

But it doesn't take a dreamer, or a Jamaican, to imagine three green, gold and black flags flying on Aug. 6. If it happens, it will be historic, epic even -- a global sports moment for the ages.

And in Kingston, it will be loud.