LONDON (Reuters) - Reggae pounded and rum flowed at a darkened Shoreditch nightclub in east London during an afternoon fashion launch for the Jamaican Olympic team kit.
Senses may have been dulled by the beat, the heat and the booze as models paraded the team uniform designed by Bob Marley’s daughter Cedella to the strains of “One Love”.
Whatever the reason, the advent of a long, lithe figure on to the catwalk excited little immediate attention.
Then the audience recognised Usain Bolt. Cameramen fought for positions and the crowd surged to get within touching distance of the man who destroyed the world 100 and 200 metres records at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and again in Berlin in the following year.
On the previous evening, Bolt had demonstrated why he is the face of the London Olympics by clocking a season’s beat 9.76 seconds over the 100 at the Rome Golden Gala. In his previous race in Ostrava he had managed only 10.04 after a sluggish start.
Sitting patiently some hours after the fashion show in a featureless London hotel room, Bolt explained why the two races had been so dramatically different.
”I came to Europe and I was back and forth, sleep early and sometimes sleep late,“ he said. ”Then when I came to Ostrava it was mainly late, late, late.
“So my coach was explaining to me that night sleep is different from day sleep. It really is true. When I got to Rome I made sure I slept well and had enough food.”
Bolt famously gorged on chicken nuggets the night before startling the world by clocking 9.69 seconds in the Beijing Olympics 100 final, despite slowing down to celebrate over the last 20 metres. He will revert to a more familiar diet in London.
“The good thing about the fact that we are in London is we are allowed Jamaican food,” he said. “We don’t have to worry about putting on weight. I would say this is pretty much home court advantage for me. I‘m really looking forward to competing here.”
Bolt’s Caribbean island possesses a proud sprinting heritage.
Arthur Wint, a Jamaican medical student who had served in the Royal Air Force in World War Two, edged team mate Herb McKenley to win the 400 metres gold at the 1948 London Games. McKenley, a remarkable sprinter who uniquely qualified for the finals of both the short sprints as well as the 400, was later a distinguished coach and administrator.
In 1976 Don Quarrie, second to Trinidad’s Hasley Crawford in the 100, won the 200 for Jamaica at the 1976 Montreal Games. In addition, Jamaican-born Linford Christie (Britain), Ben Johnson and Donovan Bailey (both Canada) won Olympic 100 metres titles although Johnson was stripped of his gold medal and world record at the 1988 Seoul Games after testing positive for steroids,
The traditional West Indies’ sports of soccer and cricket first attracted Bolt as a youngster and it was his cricket coach who spotted the young Jamaican’s track potential while watching him bowl.
A sports scholarship to William Knibb high school followed, accompanied by an unequivocal warning from his father about the consequences if he continued to skip training to hang out with his friends.
Success came quickly when the lanky teenager started taking his running seriously. A month before his 16th birthday and after shooting to his present height of 1.96 metres (6ft 5in), Bolt attracted international attention by winning the 2002 world junior 200 metres title in the Jamaican capital of Kingston.
Abject failure in his specialist event at the 2004 Athens Olympics proved the turning point for Bolt.
Fifth place in the first round heat of the 200 metres, even though it was caused by hamstring and achilles injuries, was not viewed sympathetically at home. Bolt responded by dropping Fitz Coleman as his coach and enlisting Glen Mills. A medical examination then revealed that his persistent injuries were due to a medical condition called scoliosis, which causes his spine to curve to the right.
Mills wanted Bolt to step up to the 400. Bolt argued the case for dropping down to the 100. Mills agreed as long as Bolt broke Quarrie’s Jamaican 200 record. Bolt duly delivered and the results have become the stuff of legend.
In his third competitive race over 100 metres, Bolt clocked 9.76 seconds, two hundredths of a second outside compatriot Asafa Powell’s world record. He broke Powell’s record by the same margin before setting his epic 100 record in Beijing.
Following his showboating in the 100, Bolt was totally focused in the 200, running a superb bend to clock 19.30 seconds and break Michael Johnson’s world record. He then helped the Jamaican team set a further world record in the 4x400 metres relay.
A year later at the world championships in Berlin, Bolt capitalised on an improved start to slash his world 100 record to 9.58 and the 200 to 19.19. Records historically reduced by hundredths of a second had fallen by more than a tenth.
Injury curtailed Bolt’s 2011 season and a false start in Daegu last year allowed compatriot Yohan Blake to win the world 100 gold. Bolt then retained the 200 title.
Still only 25, Bolt looks disconcertingly young for one who has done so much and who will eclipse even Michael Phelps in star quality at the London Games. The bad news for his opponents is that he believes he has matured significantly since Beijing, is injury free and now works consistently in the gym to strengthen his lean frame.
“I think I‘m getting there,” he said. “I‘m just trying to get my technique together. I‘m not where I want to be but I‘m getting there quickly. My coach just needs to find out what he needs to work on so he can fine tune me for the trials and then getting off to the Olympics.”
Life is often been difficult for Caribbean immigrants in Britain, who have received solace from the performances of their West Indies’ sporting heroes. Bolt smiles in acknowledgment when asked if he felt an empathy with the great West Indies cricket side of the 1980s, which included Jamaican express bowlers Michael Holding and Courtney Walsh, who felt they owed a special responsibility to the expatriate community.
”Yeah, without a doubt,“ he said. ”When I used to run at Crystal Palace it used to be like being at home, there were so many Jamaicans in the crowd, it was pretty much a Jamaican meet.
“I haven’t been in London in so long so it’s going to be good and I‘m looking forward to it, it’s going to be really exciting.”
Bolt went on to complete his brief European visit with an impressive 9.79 in Oslo, handing Powell a second consecutive defeat. Then, as if to underline just how competitive the 100 metres is going to in London, he paid the price of another slow start by losing to Blake in the Jamaican trials at last weekend.
Mills was outwardly unconcerned, emphasising there were still four weeks for Bolt to hone his technique. And Bolt, in the London interview agreed that if he gets anything like a decent start at the Games, the race should be over.
”If I run 9.6, then for sure nobody is going to run 9.6,“ he said. ”If everything is right there should be no problem. For me the 100 is the pinnacle of our sprinting events. I want to break my own record but the main thing is always the gold medal, for me that’s the key and that’s what I‘m focused on.
“You might look at it as a lot of pressure, but I‘m also wanting the same thing so it’s not pressure for me. It’s just a goal I set myself.”
Editing by Julian Linden