Bolt sweeps them off feet

World-record wins in 100, 200 make Jamaican sprinter hero back home

Beijing 2008

August 21, 2008|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,Sun reporter

BEIJING - People are dancing in the streets of Jamaica today, singing sweet songs and rejoicing over the long strides of a 6-foot-5 sprinter who has, in the eyes of the world, become a legend this week.

They're writing lyrics for Usain Bolt, a man who has rewritten the record books twice inside the Bird's Nest at the 2008 Olympics.

Yesterday, he followed his world record in the 100 meters with an expected, but still stunning, victory in the 200 final, breaking one of the most hallowed world records in track with a time of 19.30 seconds.

The old mark - 19.32, set by American Michael Johnson at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta - was once thought to be unbreakable.

Then Bolt, who possesses a freakish combination of size and speed, came along. Three days ago, he lowered his world record in the 100 with a time of 9.69, and he did it despite running sideways and slapping his chest with 20 meters left in the race.

Regardless of whether you thought it was showboating, as long as you believe he is clean, you have to admit it was exhilarating.

Bolt did his usual playful preening, pointing and posing before the 200 final, but he ran hard through the finish line this time, throwing his arms into the air and collapsing on his back with joy when he saw his record time.

"I blew my mind, and I blew the world's mind," said Bolt, who broke Johnson's mark despite running into a slight head wind. He is the first man to sweep the 100 and 200 at the Olympics since American Carl Lewis did it in 1984.

Bolt's feats have been perhaps the only performances at these Olympics on par with Michael Phelps' amazing week of eight gold medals and seven world records. But the charismatic sprinter shrugged off the comparison.

"I won't compare myself to Michael Phelps," Bolt said. "He swims, and he's a great athlete. Eight gold medals is great. I'm on the track, he's in the water, so you can't compare that. I congratulate him on being the best at what he does."

Phelps, who left for London yesterday to participate in the handoff ceremony for the 2012 Olympics, might want some tips from Bolt on how to handle his massive and sudden fame. Bolt might be on the verge of becoming the biggest celebrity from Jamaica, an island of 2.8 million people, since Bob Marley.

"There are no cars on the road [during Bolt's races]," said Bert Cameron, a retired Jamaican sprinter and former world champion in the 400. "It's like a ghost town. Everybody is in front of the TV or in a bar or something. Every single baby from the youngest to the oldest. They're saying 'Run, man, run!' We love our heroes."

Olivia Grange, the Jamaican minister of information, culture, youth and sport, said she had already received one song written in celebration of Bolt's 200 victory. Surrounded by reporters, she scrolled through her BlackBerry for several minutes, trying to find it, before eventually giving up. Hundreds of e-mails were flooding her in-box.

"I am proud of all the songs," Grange said. "It's euphoria in Jamaica right now. It's like magic. It's crazy. Everywhere we put up big screens, in the squares and in the districts, people are watching. From the streets of Kingston to Trelawny Parish, they are all over. It's unbelievable."

Bolt - whether you love him or loathe his playful arrogance - has been one of the most compelling figures at the 2008 Games. Is he too good to be true?

"I do not resent the questions at all," said Dr. Herb Elliott, the Jamaican team physician. "People are justified to ask questions. I can only answer as true as I can. ... Usain is clean. He is a phenomenon. Someone like him comes along once a century."

Bolt told reporters after the 100 final that he broke his world records on a pre-race diet of chicken nuggets and laughed when he revealed that he ate two nuggets before the 200 final. When he strutted into his news conference last night, he paused to watch himself on television before taking questions.

"That guy looks cool," Bolt said when asked what he was thinking as he was admiring pixelated images of himself. "That guy is fast!"

Another reporter informed him that Johnson had called him the second coming of Superman, but wanted to know: Was he more like Superman or Flash Gordon?

"I'm not Flash Gordon," Bolt said. "I'm Lightning Bolt!"

It would be easy to mistake him for a superhero, though. After his race, Bolt unlaced his golden shoes, danced, smiled and pointed, jogging around the track inside the Bird's Nest in his bare feet. It was a poignant reminder of his days growing up in Jamaica when he won races without wearing shoes.

He wrapped himself in a pair of yellow-and-green Jamaican flags, which flapped and fluttered behind him, and thousands of people serenaded him with a version of "Happy Birthday."

If you didn't know better, you would have sworn that the Fastest Man on the Planet were wearing a cape.

kevin.vanvalkenburg @baltsun.com

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