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."

In addition to the exploits of Bolt and Powell -- who own the five fastest recognized 100 times in history -- the four fastest women in the 200 meters this year are Jamaicans, as are four of the top six in the 100. In the 100-meter women's final at the Jamaican Olympic trials, reigning world champion Veronica Campbell-Brown ran what was then a season-best 10.88 -- yet still finished fourth, failing to qualify for the Olympics at the distance.

"You'd expect, in a country of 300 million people like the U.S., for 10.88 to be fourth in the women's 100," said Dennis Nobles, a track and field coach at Florida State who was in Kingston watching the Olympic trials with some of the school's Jamaican athletes. "But in a country the size of Jamaica, to finish fourth at that time? That's amazing."

Jamaican children sprint the way American kids play Little League baseball, and Jamaicans revere their sprinting champions the way Americans revere DiMaggio and Mays. Arthur Wint won the country's first Olympic gold in 1948, when the island still was a British colony. Donald Quarrie and Merlene Ottey, the most decorated male and female sprinters in the country's history, are honored with statues that greet fans at National Stadium in Kingston. All told, Jamaicans have won 42 Olympic medals, all but one of them in track and field.

Kids begin running competitively as early as 6 years old, and there is perhaps no track meet in the world like the high school championships held each spring at National Stadium, where 30,000 people pack the stands, divided into rooting sections for each school.

"People see this is a way out of tough challenges and living conditions -- poverty, if you want to use that word," said Grace Jackson, silver medalist in the 200 meters at the 1988 Seoul Games and now a top Jamaican track and field official. "That's what it was to me."

The dark side of sprinting is its deep ties to the doping scandals that have practically made skepticism a required outlook for anyone pondering lists of the fastest times in history.

Three of the last five men's 100-meter Olympic champions subsequently tested positive for steroids, and all told, more than a dozen top men's and women's sprinters -- perhaps most notably American champions Tim Montgomery, Justin Gatlin and Marion Jones -- have been implicated in the doping scandal.

Jamaica, on the other hand, has enjoyed a relatively scandal-free existence, touched mostly tangentially -- such as the positive tests of Olympic champions Ben Johnson and Linford Christie, who, while born in Jamaica, were racing for different countries. Ottey tested positive for steroids in 1999 but was cleared of wrongdoing when the positive test was ruled a laboratory error.

That doesn't mean there aren't pointed questions about the Jamaicans, primarily because of the country's lack of an anti-doping agency. According to Grange, the minister of sport, legislation that would create one could be passed by Jamaica's parliament any day now. At the national championships in Kingston, testers flown in by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) collected samples following each race.

"People have to be cynical," Jackson acknowledged. "We might get upset. But the truth is, we understand it. . . . I just don't know that we are exposed in the same way to [drugs], or that we'd be able to get the same things that others can get. That's not to say we can't fly up to places and get it. But you don't get the feel that this stuff exists here."

This week, however, an as-yet-unnamed member of Jamaica's Olympic track and field delegation was revealed to have tested positive at the national championships and was dropped from the team. According to reports, neither Bolt nor Powell was the athlete in question.

"I've never done drugs," Bolt said, "and I never will."

Hard to Find, Easy to Spot

To find the village of Sherwood Content, you turn off the main beach highway near the town of Falmouth and wind along a narrow road -- call it 1 1/2 lanes, because cars heading in opposite directions usually can squeeze past each other, but only if they slow to a crawl and pull in their mirrors -- that is studded with potholes, except in those areas where the potholes have triumphed and it is more accurate to say the dirt road is studded with pavement.

Without road signs or numbered addresses as a guide, you roll down your window and ask where you can find Usain Bolt's house, then try to follow the directions, with their reference points of churches, corner stores and dirt side roads. "He's the world's fastest man, yo!" one direction-giver calls as you pull away.

Do this a few times, and you are there.

In the village, you locate the store belonging to Wellesley Bolt, Usain's father, and the house where Bolt was raised -- a pink bungalow with a porch in front, a satellite dish on top and a pile of concrete blocks off to the side, evidence of Bolt's efforts to repay his parents for their devotion by building an extension.

And then you set off in search of Miss Lilly, Bolt's aunt, who is working on her farm. To find Miss Lilly, you park off to the side of the road and follow a young man with a machete -- your guide -- down a path cut in the tall grass, past horses and cows, toward a cloud of smoke that soon reveals a raging fire.

Miss Lilly's field is on fire. And she has a machete.

"Sugar cane," she explains, making a slashing motion with the machete. "You burn it before you cut it down."

Usain Bolt got his name after a little boy approached his mother, Jennifer, while she was pregnant and visiting Kingston. He touched her belly and said, "If it is a boy, call him Usain."

"And I loved the name, so I called him Usain," Jennifer Bolt said. "I've never met anyone else by that name."

Bolt's first love was cricket, which the kids played in the road with a homemade wicket and a tennis ball, but by age 10 he was sprinting for his primary school team -- and by age 12, his mother says, "he was beating everybody."

He ran barefoot in those days, on grass tracks where the lanes are marked by spreading diesel fuel and lighting it on fire. "When you're growing up," Bolt says, "you can't afford spikes. I got my first pair of spikes when I was 13."

Those who say Bolt came out of nowhere this year are neither Jamaicans nor track aficionados. In the spring of 2002, at age 15, he won national high school titles in the 200 and 400 meters, and that summer became the youngest world junior champion in history, winning the 200 a month shy of his 16th birthday. At each of the next two world junior championships, he set records.

Bolt turned down scholarship offers from a half-dozen U.S. colleges -- a path chosen by many of his countrymen -- and remained in Jamaica, a homebody who broke down and cried the first time he competed on the international circuit.

"I wanted to go home," he said. "I was so homesick."

Mills, Bolt's coach, always envisioned him as a double champion in the 200 and 400, figuring his height would prevent him from attaining the quick-fire start required in the 100. But Bolt, who admits he is "lazy," dropped the 400 and pressured Mills to let him run the 100 until Mills finally relented.

In his first two attempts at the distance, Bolt ran a 10.3 -- with what Norman Peart, one of his Jamaica-based managers, called "terrible mechanics." On his third try, in an international meet in Kingston on May 3, he ran 9.76 -- just two-hundredths of a second off Powell's world record.

"It was very surprising when he ran 9.76," said Donovan Powell, Asafa's brother and himself a former elite sprinter for Jamaica. "Everybody thought it was a fluke, including me -- I won't lie to you. Then, when he [ran 9.72] -- wow. I saw it on YouTube. It's amazing."

The 9.72 came at just past 11 p.m. on May 31, in the Reebok Grand Prix in New York. His parents and a handful of relatives and friends were gathered at their house in Sherwood Content, listening on the radio.

"I hear the commentator saying, 'Bolt is moving away!' " Jennifer said. "And then we couldn't hear the rest, because everyone here was screaming. We knew he wouldn't be caught. We had to quiet down to hear the time, and when they said it -- more screaming."

Bolt returned to the island a rock star, greeted by thousands of fans -- not to mention Prime Minister Bruce Golding -- at the Kingston airport when he landed. At the national championships in late June, a freshly cut reggae tune called "9.72" played over the loudspeakers, a musical version of the many tributes flowing toward the world's fastest man.

Said Nobles, the Florida State coach: "It's flabbergasting, to be honest with you, to watch somebody that big start like he does, and turn it over like he does, and then 50 meters on just open up that stride and run away from people. . . . At this point, is he the greatest sprinter in history -- at 21? The argument can be made."

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