Athletics: Boldon turns obsession into maturity

Mike Rowbottom meets one of the world's fastest talkers who is ready to prove in Athens that he is the world's fastest sprinter
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Ato Boldon is sitting in the lobby of the Inter-Continental Hotel. All the people who wanted to speak with him have spoken with him. Newspapers. Magazines. Radio. Television. Crowding him in until beads of sweat broke out on his brow, complementing the diamond in his left ear.

Now, settled for some reason on the stool of a grand piano, the heir apparent of world sprinting is relaxing with a good book. A biographical summary of the world's leading sprinters.

By his own admission, this alarmingly articulate 23-year-old is obsessive about his event; the obsession feeds a desire which burns so brightly you can hardly bear to watch.

In last summer's Olympic 100m final, Boldon's almost hyperactive intensity was his undoing as he allowed himself to be distracted by Linford Christie's false starting and ran indifferently to take the bronze.

But Boldon's coach, John Smith, believes that this season has seen Boldon achieve the maturity he needs to fulfill his immense potential.

"He couldn't manage his emotions in Atlanta," Smith said. "He went in with an uncontrollable rage. But the ones who win are the ones who manage all the stimuli around them and turn it round to benefit themselves. The lesson was learned very well. He hasn't had that problem since."

Learning comes naturally to Boldon. "He can take in information overnight, make huge adjustments and come out and make it applicable," Smith said. "That's the difference between the great ones and the ones who fill the other lanes."

Boldon, who moved to the United States from his native Trinidad at the age of 14, has been destined for greatness ever since arriving on the international scene as double world junior champion in 1992.

It is a measure of his own expectations that, at the age of 22, he was disappointed with Olympic bronze medals in the 100 and 200 metres.

"I cried my eyes out after the 100 in Atlanta, but I laugh when I watch it now. I looked really intense at first but after every false start, I looked a little less enthusiastic. By the time the gun actually goes off my eyes are half-shut.

"I didn't look like I was ready to run the race of my life. Now I'm ready to show the world what I can do. I am a more mature sprinter. That is my edge this year."

In April at Modesto, Boldon recorded a startling 100m time of 9.89sec, which still leads the world rankings ahead of the 9.90 recorded by his training partner Maurice Greene. "That scared me to be honest. I thought, `how am I possibly going to maintain that until the World Championships?'"

An intervening injury he now looks upon as a blessing in disguise. Last month in Stuttgart he recorded the fastest one-day double for 100m and 200m, recording 9.90sec and 19.77.

Despite being troubled recently with shin splints, he believes he is back in the form he was in when he ran his 9.89. There is the prospect here of him becoming the first man to win the sprint double at a global championship since Carl Lewis at the 1984 Olympics. If he were to manage that, West Indian Airlines, which has already named one of its airbuses after him, would have to dedicate a fleet in his honour.

With Michael Johnson absent from the 200m, Boldon believes his best chance lies in the longer sprint. "In the 200, it's me," he said. "I have the top four times." As for the 100m, he sees six possible winners and almost certainly an improvement on Donovan Bailey's world record of 9.84sec.

"You are going to hear a lot of sprinters saying that I am the man to beat. Incorrect. Trust me. Every sprinter that comes to this meet wants what Donovan Bailey has. And I am no exception."

Boldon has not been impressed with the champion's recent complaints about injury, illness and off-track distractions.

"All that stuff about his daughter having chicken pox... He's an old dog up to his tricks," Boldon said. "He's one of the best in terms of gamesmanship."

The question of who is the world's fastest man - which so diverted the world with Bailey's 150m challenge with Johnson two months ago - is likely to be resolved on the fast track of Athens' Olympic stadium.

There is no question of who is the world's fastest talker. If the laser gun technology being used at these championships to monitor velocity had been employed during yesterday's press conference, Boldon would have gone off the scale.

Unsurprisingly, one of Boldon's heroes is Muhammad Ali. "I don't know if he talked to be heard, but I do think he talked because he had to convince not only his public but himself."

It is, you sense, the same for Boldon, whose braggadocio always retains enough humour for it to be loveable.

Asked what he could do if his talent kept up with his ego, Boldon grinned before replying: "9.69 and 19 seconds dead."

Fantasy land, no? But a funny thing happened to Boldon before he ran in the NCAA Championships in Eugene in May of this year. His girlfriend Cassandra - a film producer from Boldon's adopted city of Los Angeles - rang him to say that she had foreseen his winning time.

"She said I would run 9.92 seconds," Boldon recalled. "I said, `don't tell me that because the NCAA record is 9.91.' I ran 9.92."

This week Cassandra rang Boldon again with a vision of his time in Athens. It was 9.76 seconds. "I know it's hard to believe, but there you go," he said.