Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2009

Usain Bolt

The world's fastest man sprinted past the coconut tree, down the winding hill and into the village of Cascade. On this late-November afternoon, Usain Bolt is home in Jamaica, filming a commercial for the national tourism agency, which is banking on his global stardom to lift the country's recession-racked economy. Cascade itself doesn't have much to advertise as a vacation hot spot. It's an impoverished village in the interior of a struggling country, where a handful of bars, fruit stands and vendors peddling straw baskets count as the downtown business district. But Cascade does have Bolt, and he's what's being advertised: You love this guy, you'll love his country.

When the locals heard that Bolt was arriving, they gathered in the town center, a little over 100, women and children up front. They screamed as Bolt raced by, a gazelle in a gold shirt, his long limbs churning at what could be called full speed for most humans, quarter-speed maybe for Bolt. A getaway car awaited, yet the country's greatest export since reggae slowed to walk among the people, his people.

A throng of women and girls grabbed him, hugged him, tucked themselves under his statuesque shoulders. Some latched onto him as if he were a father just home from work. Bolt's forehead teemed with stress. His eyes widened with worry; he's not comfortable with all the worship. But he posed and kept the world-famous smile on overdrive. "We've always wondered," says Veron Jackson, 37, her face flushed with joy from the close Bolt encounter, even though her 3-year-old son bumped his head in the stampede, "when it was going to be our turn."

Bolt has Jamaica — and the rest of the world — right at his supersonic feet. The fascination with the 6-ft. 5-in. (1.96 m), 212-lb. (96 kg) 23-year-old sprinter burgeoned in Beijing at the 2008 Olympics, when Bolt broke the 100-m world record although he seemed to spend the last half of the race pounding his chest in celebration. He introduced his now ubiquitous, still fairly awesome Zeus-like victory pose — one arm cocked back like an archer's, the other pointed toward the sky like an arrow — since dubbed "to the world," or as it's better known around Jamaica, "to di worl." (Or "to di flippin' worl," as a Jamaican radio host calls it.) He then danced around the track, agitating a few old fogies, delighting everyone else on the planet. Bolt crushed the 200-m record a few days later.

After that, he really turned on the speed. In 2009, Bolt single-handedly transformed the world track-and-field championships, usually of interest only to devotees, into a mandatory-viewing event. He delivered a mind-numbing 9.58 at the 100 m in Berlin, a 0.11-sec. improvement over his Beijing time. In an event in which records are bettered in hundredths-of-a-second increments, this was stupendous. Bolt then bolted on another record, 19.19, in the 200 m. "It was pom-pom-pom-pom-pom," says Verna Taylor, another Cascade resident, describing the pot banging that followed Bolt's wins at the worlds. "And den we drink di beer."

At the medals ceremony for his 200 win in Berlin — the city where Jesse Owens buried Nazi visions of Aryan superiority at the 1936 Olympics — the Germans sang "Happy Birthday" to Bolt. "I wasn't all that surprised about the 100. I knew it was going to be a fast race," he tells Time during a break in his tourism shoot. "But the 200 one, I was like, 'Whoa!'" He laughs. "That caught me off guard." His competitors give him more credit. "We were all in a state of awe," says American Shawn Crawford, the 200-m Olympic gold medalist in Athens in 2004, who finished fourth in Berlin. "Like, 'Dog, he's about to break into the 18-sec. realm.' It's like you're witnessing a miracle."

The beauty of sprinting lies in its simplicity. Running is the rawest form of athleticism: no piece of equipment can control your fate; no teammates can lift you up or slow you down. It's just you and your motor to the finish. And when Bolt hits speeds approaching 30 m.p.h. (48 km/h) on the track, we witness man morph into machine. "It's really humbling," says Bolt when asked to reflect on his records. "You can say, 'Oh, my God, I'm doing this.'" Besides bringing singular joy and potential economic benefits to his country, Bolt's historic runs in Berlin and the prospect of more broken barriers could make him the most celebrated and debated — Is he doing this without performance-enhancing drugs? — athlete of the next decade. As Michael Johnson, the four-time Olympic gold-medal winner whose 200-m record Bolt has shattered, puts it, "He has made people stop and rethink what humans are capable of doing."

From Trelawny to "the World"
Talk to any of the people who knew Bolt as a boy, and they'll tell you he's been a spirited sprinter since childhood. To find Bolt's beginnings, head a few hours north from the Jamaican capital, Kingston, through the hills where kids — animal and human varieties — roam along roads so narrow that a car nearly swerves into a stone wall as it dodges oncoming traffic. Pass the resorts on the northern coast and enter the parish of Trelawny, a sugar-farming area that was the former stronghold of the Maroons, Jamaica's 18thcentury freedom fighters who resisted British slavers. Exit the highway and journey south, deep into the heart of Cockpit Country, the rugged, nearly impenetrable region of the interior so named, according to one theory, because it reminded the 17th century British of the humid cockfighting pits back home.

Make a right at the mural of Bob Marley, Marcus Garvey and other national heroes, pass the shanty homes with pigs wandering in the front yards. You enter Bolt's home village, Sherwood Content, and drive by the stone-strewn grass "track" where Bolt ran as a boy. Two children off the side of the road are holding machetes. Don't worry; the locals use them to cut sugarcane.

You finally arrive at the dimly lit grocery shop run by Wellesley Bolt, 53, thin and stretched out like his son. At 8:30 on a Sunday morning, he is hunched over, scooping sugar for his customers. There's absolutely no indication that this store belongs to the father of the world's best athlete. The only signs out front encourage safe sex and HIV testing. Brand consultants don't quite make it into Cockpit Country.

Why not trade on his famous name and attract tourists to fill his coffers? Wellesley doesn't want the hassle. "I told him, 'Yo, Dad, stop working,'" says Usain, who this year took in $3 million to $4 million in endorsement income from the likes of Puma, Gatorade and local phone provider Digicel. "'I can take care of you guys.' He's like, 'Nah.' He wants something to do. He's a guy who likes to be independent."

Wellesley was strict, ordering Usain to carry buckets of water for miles back to their home, which had no running water, so that the family could cook and clean. Usain credits chores like that with helping build his wiry strength. "Those were my weights," he says. "In the country, you always find something to do. Go through the bushes, ride your bicycle, go walking. So you work your muscles when you're young."

Wellesley would often duck out of work — during Usain's youth, he toiled in the coffee fields — to visit Usain at school and make sure he was keeping up with training. Wellesley explains that if Usain fell out of line, he would just smack him. In the face? "No, we don't do that," says Wellesley. "On the hand — or even better, on the back." He grins. "It paid off." Bolt's first love was cricket, the sport that's still the favorite of many West Indian islanders. Then, one day on the cricket pitch, his coach spotted his speed and diverted him to the track. At 15, Bolt became the youngest-ever world junior champion in the 200m, and he set age-group records over five years.

These achievements were in no way a measure of his work ethic, since he didn't have one. "I was really lazy," Bolt admits. "I was coming out of high school doing absolutely nothing." Jamaicans wrote him off after disappointing performances in the 2004 Athens Olympics and the 2005 world championships in Helsinki. At both events, he fought injuries — and indifference. A month before the '04 Games, Pascal Rolling, a Puma marketing executive, spent time working with Bolt in Germany. "We literally had to fight him every day to get him to the track," says Rolling. "I remember him saying, 'Don't worry. I'm going to be an Olympic champion.' I thought, You are f______ crazy. You have no clue."

Boltology Lesson
In October 2004, Bolt switched coaches, to Glen Mills, a revered veteran. Mills was a scientist of speed, fixing a few important glitches in Bolt's running machine. Bolt leaned too far back during his dashes, which threw him off balance. According to Bolt, Mills also loosened the engine. "My shoulder was always up, like this," Bolt says, imitating a shrug. "I had to put them down and lean forward. When you run like this" — again the shrug — "you're really, really tight. And when you start getting tighter, you're automatically going to start getting slower." The cantankerous Mills improved Bolt's work habits but didn't drill his pupil too hard. A dictatorship would never fit Bolt's loosey-goosey vibe.

Bolt's exploits sent physicists and biologists racing to predict the limits of human speed. In a paper titled "Velocity Dispersions in a Cluster of Stars: How Fast Could Usain Bolt Have Run?," Norwegian physicist Hans Eriksen, a cosmologist who recently studied the origins of the universe at Caltech's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, predicted that if Bolt hadn't celebrated at the end of his 100-m victory in Beijing and had instead matched the acceleration of the second-place runner or slightly exceeded it, he would have clocked anywhere from 9.55 to 9.61 sec. rather than his winning 9.69. Two Dutch statisticians employed something called extreme-value theory to call 9.51 sec. the ultimate 100-m record. Stanford biologist Mark Denny reached into his math tool kit to predict that 9.48 sec. would be the human speed limit.

So how does Bolt burst through speed barriers? While watching a video of Bolt's 100m race in Berlin, Ralph Mann, a biomechanist who works with the U.S. track-and-field team, explains. First off, when he leans over at the start, Bolt's butt is up higher than those of the other racers. "That produces power from the big monster muscles in your body," says Mann. "The big old gluteus maximus, the big old hamstring." For years, tall guys like Bolt were discouraged from running the 100 m because it took longer for their limbs to wind up at the start. But 10 m into the Berlin 100, Bolt is already in second place. At 20 m, he's in first place. "He should not be ahead at that point," says Mann. "If he was in seventh, I would be impressed. Exceptional is too soft a word. He's astounding as a starter."

Once Bolt gets in gear at the beginning, his long legs are a lethal advantage. Runners achieve faster speeds by hitting the ground with greater force than do their competitors. All lite sprinters are blessed with the fast-twitch muscle fibers that can produce such explosive pounding. But if you stop the tape 4.8 sec. into Bolt's record-breaking 100 m in Berlin, you'll see that his left knee is particularly high off the ground. This position, combined with the length and strength of Bolt's legs, creates the power that spells second or worse for the other runners.

Given track's sordid history, there will always be those wondering if pharmacology — namely, performance-enhancing drugs — more than physics is responsible for Bolt's speeds. Yes, Bolt has passed every drug test. But so did U.S. sprinter Marion Jones and other runners later unmasked as cheats. Science has outrun the testing. When asked if there are whispers, Wallace Spearmon, an American sprinter and one of Bolt's best friends, replies, "Yes, there always are."

Claire Nelson, a Jamaica native who founded the Institute of Caribbean Studies in Washington, insists that a "culture of shame" in her home country will act as "preventative medicine" for Bolt against getting caught using drugs. Bolt agrees with Nelson's assessment. "Because I'm doing extraordinary things, people might say, 'Blah, blah, blah,'" Bolt explains. "I know I'm clean. One thing in Jamaica, we take our sports very, very seriously. One person who got caught years ago had to leave the country because we don't like to be disgraced." Does he think he would eventually get kicked out of Jamaica if he was busted? "I probably would. It would be traumatic."

The Weight of a Nation
If you ever want to see Bolt slow down, check him out this early Sunday afternoon. He's visiting his alma mater, William Knibb High School, a place where graffiti covers the classroom walls and the weight room consists of a few pieces of equipment tucked into the corner of a teacher's office. He was at a party the previous night and didn't get any sleep. So after he emerges from a catnap, the world's fastest man drags his ass through the courtyard, where another segment of his commercial will be filmed. Though Bolt insists he has toned down his revelry, he's still a bit of a party animal. Beverage of choice: Guinness. Bolt admits he has tried marijuana, which in Jamaica is all too common. "Everybody smokes at least paper when they're young," Bolt says. "But smoking wasn't for me, because no one in my family really smoked." He insists pot isn't part of his repertoire.

Bolt makes no apologies for loving the nightlife. "I explain to people that I'm still young," he says. "I'm going to go out and enjoy myself. If that's going to be a problem, that's their problem. I've watched and seen a lot of superstars, especially in the States. Because they have to live by a certain standard, they take drugs, they do all kinds of stuff, just to not be stressed. I'm not going to let people drive me to be that crazy person."

Though Bolt is keen on enjoying his fame, he still has obligations. "Usain has given Jamaica a brand you can never pay for," says Edmund Bartlett, the Tourism Minister. The country has already bestowed the equivalent of knighthood, the Order of Jamaica, on Bolt. He is helping the tourist agency, and bureaucrats dragged him out on a recent Friday night to an event promoting Jamaica's trade interests. "He has a responsibility," says Nelson, head of the Institute of Caribbean Studies. "I hope he matures emotionally, spiritually, intellectually in a way that he can be a real teacher."

The global recession has hit Jamaica hard. Demand for the country's most valuable natural resource, a red-dirt ore called bauxite — the source for the base of aluminum — has slowed. For the first nine months of this year, the mining sector was down 48%. Remittances from the Jamaican diaspora in the U.S., Canada and Britain slipped 15% in that period. When you drive out of the Kingston airport toward the center of the city, a Bolt billboard greets you with welcome to jamaica. A few seconds later, you pass nothing but heartbreaking poverty. "We've got big problems on our hands," says Dennis Morrison, a Jamaican economist. "Big, big problems."

Bolt feels the weight of expectations. "I think I'm doing enough by putting Jamaica out there," he says. "I put myself first. I told myself I'd never let the country put me under pressure. I understand that, yeah, the country wants me to do well. But I also want to do well for myself. And at the end of the day, if anything happened to me, it's going to affect me and not my country." The constant calls for Bolt's help concern his confidants. "A lot of people want him to do this foundation, start this, start that," says Kim Bernard, a marketing executive and Bolt buddy. "People have to take it easy with him."

Ya, mon. On an early-December Saturday night on Jamaica's tranquil north coast, everyone is at ease. Thousands have journeyed to the "9.58 Super Party," which Bolt is hosting on a former sugar plantation where slaves once labored. The money raised by the event — tickets are selling for $25 to $80 — will help refurbish a health clinic in Bolt's home village. Stars like American rapper Ludacris have flown in. A showman, Bolt is onstage playing DJ, dancing as if he's broken another world record. The night has turned into a national celebration. "This shows that Bolt's respected," says Jacques Smith, a member of Bolt's Kingston-based track club. "If you're not respected in Jamaica, no one's going to come to your s___. Hear me?"

It's been a rough 2009, in Jamaica and the rest of the world. But thinking about Bolt's spine-tingling sprints in Berlin and watching him onstage, delivering pure elation to his country, offers at least a speck of comfort. "Breaking barriers is my thing," Bolt says. "I've been doing it since I was young, just setting the standards for a lot of people. I'll keep trying to break barriers and make the world happy." So it's not all bad. Because in 2010 and beyond, we'll all get to witness Usain Bolt dance.