LONDON — Usain Bolt never bothers with understatement. It simply doesn’t suit him.
His Twitter page describes the Jamaican sprinter as, “The most naturally gifted athlete the world has ever seen.” And that might be right.
Following his world record-breaking, wildly entertaining, transcendent 100-meter and 200-meter victories at the Beijing Olympics, Bolt told the assembled media, “I blew my mind and I blew the world’s mind.” And that was right.
As the London Games officially begin on Friday, the charismatic Bolt is the biggest draw at international meets, a status that reportedly earns him $250,000 per competition in addition to his Puma contract, which is worth almost $10 million per year. He is the reason more than 1 million people applied for the 40,000 public tickets available to the men’s 100-meter final Aug. 5. He is why London organizers could charge $42,000 per person for a guaranteed seat to the 100 final as part of a corporate hospitality package.
People pay because Bolt’s races hold the promise of history in the making.
With the chance to become the first sprinter to win the 100 and 200 in consecutive Olympics, Bolt, 25, is keenly aware that the London Games will define his career. He knows two more individual gold medals will make him a “living legend” in the sport.
But the men’s 100-meter final will be the story of the Lightning Bolt and the Beast. Bolt will be challenged for “fastest man” honors by his countryman, friend, training partner, and reigning 100-meter world champion Yohan “The Beast” Blake. Aside from world-beating speed and Jamaican pride, the sprinters could not be more opposite, yet their partnership seems to work and certainly adds intrigue to the most anticipated event in London.
“We have a wonderful chemistry,” said Blake. “We laugh. We talk. We tell jokes about each other. It’s nothing like a rivalry. But when you’re on the track it’s business because you want to win. I know everybody thinks we are not good together. But I feel it’s the best thing that happened to us. We get to push each other every day in training, running real good times.”
Although Americans Tyson Gay and Justin Gatlin should be in the medal mix, the 80,000 spectators for the 100 final will likely witness Bolt ascend to icon status or watch Blake pull off what oddsmakers still consider a major upset. Bolt remains the prerace favorite despite finishing second to Blake in the 100 and 200 at the Jamaican Olympic trials and suffering a hamstring problem related to long-standing back issues. In a testament to Bolt’s celebrity, it was breaking news Wednesday when Jamaica’s track team doctor Winston Dawes pronounced Bolt fit.
“He’s back fully,” Dawes told the BBC. “He has been training very, very hard and his performance is on track. We expect he’ll be fully fit by the time the Olympics come around.”
Then, with a dramatic flair that would make Bolt proud, Dawes added, “If the conditions are ideal, then we are going to see something fantastic. We may see records go.”
Bolt set the 100 (9.58 seconds) and 200 (19.19 seconds) world records at the 2009 World Championships in Berlin. He famously strikes an archer pose, releasing an imaginary bow, prior to races. Prerace antics help Bolt relax. He doesn’t skimp on postrace celebrations either, sometimes dancing and blowing kisses to the crowd. It’s all part of the showmanship.
Whether Bolt or Blake produces record-setting triumphs in London, Jamaica wins. The reign of Bolt and emergence of Blake has fully resurrected the proud sprinting tradition of the small Caribbean island. Jamaica made its first Olympic appearance at the 1948 London Games, where Arthur Wint won gold and Herbert McKenley won silver in the 400. Four years ago in Beijing, the Jamaicans collected six gold medals on the track, in the men’s and women’s 100, men’s and women’s 200, men’s 4 x 100-meter relay, and women’s 400-meter hurdles. The Jamaicans’ medal total in Beijing was boosted by a sweep of the women’s 100.
“Jamaica was once a top-tier cricket nation but for many decades its teams have been uninspiring, and the soccer teams likewise,” said Trevor Parchment, a national-caliber Jamaican athlete in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s and former Director of Sports and Recreation in the Jamaican Ministry of Youth. “The people have been beaten down by the high crime rate and a shattered economy. So the success of their male and female sprinters have given the people something to cheer about and given them hope again.
“When Bolt smiles and draws back his bow, he gives a salve to their hurt, clears away the gloom and brings joy to his people. He is local, he understands their needs and relates to them.”
The same can be said for Blake and his recent performances, though he doesn’t indulge in extravagant displays. He doesn’t gravitate toward the spotlight like Bolt. At 5 feet 11 inches, Blake possesses the more traditional sprinter’s physique than the lanky, 6-5 Bolt. In conversation and on the track, Blake is business-like and efficient, not prone to big, bold talk like Bolt.
When asked if he thought he could set a world record, Blake said, “Whenever I run, I think about what my coach told me and going out there and executing the race. Anything is possible.”
And “The Beast” nickname suits Blake the way “Lightning Bolt” suits Bolt.
Bolt is an unpredictable force of nature. that demands attention. Sometimes it is hard to know whether Bolt creates drama or it follows him, on and off the track. Last year, a false start disqualified him from the 100- meter final in Daegu and defending his world championship. This year, Bolt made headlines when he crashed his black BMW returning from a party at 5 in the morning.
Blake, 22, has what he calls a beast-like hunger inside him, keeping him focused on his Olympic goals and working harder than Bolt under coach Glen Mills in Kingston, Jamaica. Blake prefers a low profile and plays cricket with friends and reads in his downtime. “I want people to say, ‘Where’s Blake?’ ” he said. “Then, when they see me, I want them to say, ‘Wow, that’s him.’ ”
Generally, that’s what happens these days when Blake races, particularly when he defeated Bolt in the Jamaican trials. He enters the London Olympics unbeaten in 2012.
“They call me the Beast for a reason, knowing my work ethic,” said Blake. “I’m always working. Even if I’m watching TV, I’m finding some work to do. That’s me because I know what I want. I know what I can do. And I know as long as I put in hard work, anything can happen.”
Blake was discovered playing cricket at age 15 by his school principal. and he was told to try track and field. He came up through a Jamaican development system that identifies talent early and makes sure promising runners have good coaching. “In Jamaica, you know talent,” said Blake. “You can see if that guy is going to be a great guy.”
At the Jamaican trials, Blake ran a personal best of 9.75 seconds. He set a personal best in the 200 last September in 19.26. Still, Blake knows he must refine his form to run faster.
“Endurance and strength is not my problem,” said Blake. “My problem is the technique. If you watch some of my 100 meters, it’s my start and sometimes I tend to carry my arms across my body. Those are some of the stuff I’m working on, to get my arms straight, to improve on my start, and also mind the turn.
“I work, I eat, I sleep, I talk Olympics. That’s my dream. I had a dream last year and I got the world championship gold medal in the 100. I have a dream this year for the Olympics. And I’m working towards it.”
Jamaica and the world can’t wait to see how it all plays out.