Hailing From an Island of Speedsters and Owner Of the 100-Meter World Record, Usain Bolt Is . . .

In Fast Company

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 1, 2008

SHERWOOD CONTENT, Jamaica In the thriving heart of the land of the best sprinters on earth, in the tiny village that produced the world's fastest man, nothing appears to be moving, save for the smoke rising from a distant field. But all around, you can almost hear the creeping movement of that which is planted in the fertile, green land -- sugar cane, coffee beans, yams -- to be harvested when the time is right, the better specimens packaged and sent forth to carry the country's good name abroad.

In life-giving earth such as this, there always is the possibility of that one outlier, the freak of nature, that one awesome specimen that will rise from this island to redefine for the rest of the world what is organically possible.

It is happening right now. His name is Usain Bolt.

Six feet five, with a stride that chews up ground like a leopard's and owner of the fastest 100-meter time in history -- a 9.72-second burst that stunned the world of track and field on May 31 -- Bolt rose from this farming village near Jamaica's northern shore, graduated from schoolboy phenom to worldwide wonder and will lead a talented contingent of Jamaican sprinters, bent on capturing a bounty of gold, to the Beijing Summer Games, which begin Aug. 8.

In a sport that is, by its nature, the purest of all -- line up and run, first to reach the finish line wins -- Jamaica, an island of only 2.8 million residents, boasts a disproportionate number of the world's elite sprinters. And none is more talented or more breathtaking to behold than Bolt, the son of a general-store owner and a dressmaker whose first races as a preteen were run without shoes on grass tracks.

To judge from the hushed platitudes of those who have witnessed Bolt's greatness, and who own the experience to put it in the proper context, there appears to be nothing stopping him from achieving a triumphant double victory in the 100- and 200-meter sprints in Beijing -- nothing, that is, except his own coach. Despite the rising roar of destiny surrounding Bolt -- an international prodigy for nearly seven years but still a few weeks shy of his 22nd birthday -- Glen Mills still has not committed to allowing him to enter both events.

"The 100 meter, we need to work out and master," Mills told reporters as recently as Saturday, four days after Bolt, following a poor start, was beaten by countryman Asafa Powell in the 100 at a meet in Stockholm. "He just got up and ran and abandoned all strategy, the response of an inexperienced runner."

Bolt, a 200-meter specialist who only began running the 100 competitively in 2007 -- the world record came in only his fifth race at the distance -- has vowed to do as his coach wishes, but there seems little chance Mills would deny his charge this opportunity and deny the world the spectacle of a showdown between Bolt and his two main rivals -- Powell, whose 100-meter mark he shattered, and American Tyson Gay, the reigning world champion in both events.

If Bolt competes in only one event, it almost certainly would be the 200, in which his personal best is 19.67 seconds, the fifth-fastest time in history. He has the potential to threaten Michael Johnson's world record, once thought untouchable, of 19.32. On Saturday in London, Bolt ran a 19.76 while, by all accounts, easing up over the final 15 to 20 meters.

"He can be the very best athlete in the history of track and field," said Donovan Bailey, the Jamaican-born, Canadian-reared champion who won gold in the 100 at the 1996 Atlanta Games. "I think he can run a 19-flat. There's almost nothing that is out of the question with this young man."

'Maybe It's in the Water'

Bolt's story is not only of a talented athlete who rose from teenage prodigy to worldwide fame, but of a country that, despite its modest size, consistently produces some of the world's best sprinters -- and manages to do it while largely avoiding the stain from the drug scandals that have plagued the sport.

"There's a natural ability -- I guess it comes out of the Jamaican spirit," said Olivia Grange, Jamaica's minister of information, culture, youth and sports. "I don't know -- maybe it's in the water."

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