Athletics: The boy they call Lightning is frightening

World Championships: This Bolt from the Jamaican blue is only 16 but he could make a big impression in Paris
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The Independent Online

Unless you happen to be a true aficionado of track and field, you will probably not have heard of Usain Bolt. Remember the name. You are likely to hear a lot more of it, starting at the World Championships in Paris next week.

The Jamaican known in his homeland as "Lightning Bolt" or "Thunder Bolt" is 16, 10 months younger than Wayne Rooney. Last month he ran 200m in 20.13sec at the Pan American Junior Championships in Bridgetown, Barbados. That happens to be quicker than Maurice Greene (20.16) has run for the distance this year - or Frankie Fredericks (20.23) or Konstadinos Kederis, the reigning world, Olympic and European champion (20.30), not to mention all three of Britain's World Championship 200m representatives: Christian Malcolm (20.25), Julian Golding (20.37) and Darren Campbell (20.49).

Michael Johnson, who holds the world record at 19.32sec, was 20 before he could run as fast. His best time as a teenager was 20.40sec. In other words, the 6ft 5in Bolt is lightning quick. He could even be quick enough to win a medal in the Stade de France. He stands sixth on the world rankings this summer, but third among the sprinters qualified to contest the 200m in Paris - behind Shingo Suetsugu of Japan (20.03) and Joshua Johnson of the United States (20.05).

The likelihood is that Kederis and Fredericks will crank up their speed a significant notch but the prodigiously gifted Bolt has to be considered a serious contender. He turns 17 on Thursday, two days before the championships open, but could still become the youngest male medallist in the history of the World Championships. The Nigerian Kunle Adejuyigbe was 18 years and 5 days when he won a 4 x 400m bronze medal in Gothenburg in 1995.

Not that the quietly spoken Bolt is talking about making it to the global medal rostrum a month before he starts sixth- form college. "If I break my personal record there, I'll be proud of myself - even if I don't make the final," he said last week. And Bolt would have good reason to be proud, too. An improvement on his personal best would give him outright ownership of the world junior (Under-20) record he equalled in Barbados, the 20.13sec set by American Roy Martin back in 1985. The last Jamaican to hold the world junior record for the distance was Don Quarrie. He was 19 when he set his mark of 20.56sec en route to the Commonwealth title in Edinburgh in 1970.

Quarrie went on to win Olympic 200m gold in Montreal in 1976 and the citizens of Kingston erected a statue in his honour. At 16, Bolt has yet to make his mark on the tracks of Europe but the schoolboy is already a national hero in Jamaica. He had 33,000 compatriots screaming his name when he blitzed to the world junior title in Kingston last year, becoming the youngest ever winner of a global under-20 crown at the age of 15 years 333 days.

Bolt lives with his parents, Jennifer and Wesley, in Trelawny, the Jamaican town named after the Cornishman Sir William Trelawny, who was Governor of the Caribbean island from 1767 to 1772. He trains five days a week on a grass track at the William Knibb High School in Trelawny, where he stood out as a fast bowler before swapping his cricket whites for a running vest.

He has a manager now - a former school friend, Norm Peart - but insists that fame has not transformed his life. "I have just been training hard," Bolt said. "Nothing has changed. I have continued training like I always have. The only thing that has changed for me is my height. I'm a couple of inches taller than I was last year."

With his giant frame and his prodigious stride, Bolt has been compared by track historians to Arthur Wint, the 6ft 4in Jamaican who was a medical student in London when he won the 400m title at the 1948 Olympics at Wembley. He cites Wint as one of his heroes and Michael Johnson as another. With a 400m time of 45.35sec this summer (0.07sec quicker than Daniel Caines' best for the year), Bolt has inevitably been hailed as the natural successor to Johnson, who holds the world records at 200m and 400m.

He met the American when he added the world youth (Under-18) 200m title to his growing CV in Sherbrooke, Canada, last month. "We have to be careful not to put too much pressure on him," Johnson said. "It's all about what he does three, four, five years down the line."

Teenage speed merchants have come and gone before without fulfilling their youthful potential. Dwayne Evans was a 17-year-old high-school student from Phoenix when he took the Olympic 200m bronze medal behind Quarrie and Millard Hampton in Montreal in 1976. He never came close to repeating that form again. Linsey Macdonald was a 16-year-old Dunfermline schoolgirl when she won a 4 x 400m relay bronze medal at the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. Her career declined thereafter.

There have, though, been cases of teenage track and field prodigies whose sheer talent has carried them to enduring success. Ulrike Meyfarth won Olympic high-jump gold as a 16-year-old in Munich in 1972 and as a 28-year-old in Los Angeles 12 years later. And Bob Mathias won the Olympic decathlon title at 17 in London in 1948 and retained it in Helsinki in 1952.

The worry in Jamaica is that Bolt could be burned out on the American collegiate circuit. He has already had six colleges trying to lure him with scholarships. Howard Hamilton, who holds the office of Public Defender in Jamaica's government, wrote to the Jamaican Observer last week urging the Jamaica Amateur Athletic Association to make sure Bolt's future on and off the track is safeguarded.

"It is the responsibility of the JAAA to ensure that this new-found treasure receives nurturing and protection," he wrote. "Usain Bolt is the most phenomenal sprinter ever produced by this island and history will judge them harshly if they fail."

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