Bolt wastes no time in grabbing third gold before he hits the wall
Jamaican sensation keeps on winning as memories of Owens come rushing back
Sunday 23 August 2009
Another gold medal for Usain Bolt and another record. A bronze medal for Britain too. Not that the men's 4 x 100m relay final on the penultimate night of the World Championships was quite as scorching as the 100m and 200m finals in which the Jamaican Lightning Bolt blazed a trail of destruction through the world record books. This time there was only a championship record. But then Bolt did have to rely on the help of three mortals.
Still, it was his run round the curve on the third stage that put Jamaica ahead of Trinidad & Tobago and left Asafa Powell with the formality of a glory leg. The one-time holder of the 100m world record reached the line 0.31sec clear in 37.31sec, 0.21sec shy of the world record time the Jamaicans clocked in Beijing last summer. Trinidad & Tobago took silver and the British quartet of Simeon Williamson, Tyrone Edgar, Marlon Devonish and Harry Aikines-Ayreetey claimed bronze, clocking 38.02sec.
Thanks in no small part to the disqualification of the United States from their semi-final on Friday night, the Great Britain track and field squad in Berlin now have four medals in the bag, just one shy of their target with one day to go. Two of them are gold, so the 60-strong British team will need to muster at least one more victory this afternoon if they are to match Bolt's personal hat-trick.
The man of the championships has one final task to perform this afternoon before packing his three gold medals and preparing to leave the German capital. He has a date at the Champions Club with the mayor of Berlin, Wolfgang Wovereit.
The fastest man on the planet is to receive a 2.7-ton chunk of the Berlin Wall decorated with an image of him speeding to his 100m world record on the blue Olympiastadion track last Sunday evening.
It is entirely fitting, given that the young man from Trelawny Parish – who turned 23 on Friday – has become a serial demolisher of barriers. Last Sunday, it was the 100m record: the figures 9.69 smashed and replaced with 9.58. On Thursday it was the 200m record: the digits 19.30 smithereened and replaced with 19.19.
No man in history has ever done that kind of damage in the world record books. Not in the relative terms of advancement at any rate. In taking a 0.11sec chunk off the 100m record that he set slowing down in the Olympic final in Beijing last summer, Bolt achieved a feat on a par with Bob Beamon's 8.90m long jump in the thin air of Mexico City at the 1968 Olympic Games. Then he did it all over again four days later.
Just 13 months ago, Michael Johnson's 200m world record, the 19.32sec the Texan clocked at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, was considered to be untouchable. It was regarded as a phenomenal achievement that Bolt proceeded to eclipse it by 0.02sec, pushing all the way to the line in the Beijing final.
But then in Berlin on Thursday he went and gave the record the quantum leap treatment, with no Tyson Gay to push him and little specific 200m training behind him following the car crash in May that left him with an injured left foot and the need to keep off bend-running for a few weeks.
What we have seen from the Lightning Bolt over the course of these 12th World Championships will enter track and field folklore alongside the deeds of Jesse Owens in the same arena at the Berlin Olympics of 1936. Back then, of course, there was a deeper resonance to Owens' accomplishment in bagging four gold medals – from the 100m, 200m, the long jump and the 4 x 100m relay.
The sharecropper's son from Alabama showed the watching Adolf Hitler, and the rest of the Nazi regime, that their warped theory about Aryan supremacy was an absolute myth.
Owens died in 1980 but in a touching nod to the great man and to his achievement in helping to break down the barriers of race, his granddaughter was in the Olympiastadion yesterday to present the medals for the men's long jump. Marlene Dortch, an attorney with the Federal Communications Commission in Washington DC, was joined by Julia Vanessa Long, granddaughter of Luz Long, the German long-jumper who made a point of befriending Owens in front of Hitler at the 1936 Games after the American had won the 100m and the Fuhrer had refused to greet him, saying: "These Americans should be ashamed of themselves for letting their medals be won by a Neger. I would never shake the hand of one."
When Owens fouled his first two attempts in the long jump qualifying round and faced the prospect of elimination, Long put an arm around him and advised him to take off from a safe distance behind the board.
Owens proceeded to win the final, with his German rival-turned-friend taking the silver medal and leaving the stadium with an arm around the American victor. "You can melt down all the medals and cups I have and they wouldn't be a plating on the 24-carat friendship I felt for Luz Long at that moment," Owens said. Long was killed fighting for his country in 1943 but the friendship between the two families has endured.
It just so happened that the granddaughters were sitting watching the action last night from the box where Hitler glared down less than approvingly at Long's act of humanity 73 years ago. "I feel great that I am sitting in the box where Hitler once was," Dortch said, "enjoying time with the Long family – that Luz Long's family and Jesse Owens' family are here to be celebrated. And Hitler...? Who?"
You could not help wondering what Jesse Owens might have made of his granddaughter sitting in that spot in Berlin as an honoured guest and as an African-American bearing a Germanic family name. You could not help wondering, too, what Owens might have made of the 21st Century phenomenon known as the Lightning Bolt. "My grandfathter would have loved to be able to be here to see Usain Bolt break those records," Dortch reflected. "He always said records were made to be broken. I'm sure he would be excited to see him out there."
Owens won four gold medals in Berlin, a record for a track and field athlete at an Olympic Games. He did not quite trouble the world record books, though. He equalled the Olympic record in the 100m, 10.3sec, and set a new Olympic record in the 200m, 20.7sec.
Owens did equal one world record (100 yards) and break three others (long jump, 220 yards and 220 yards hurdles) in the space of 45 minutes at the Big Ten Western Conference Championships, a collegiate competition, in Ann Arbor, Michigan in May 1935. It is difficult to imagine even the superhuman Bolt managing to match that stunning quadruple feat, although the 6ft 5in Jamaican could do with every challenge he can get now. Just two days after his 23rd birthday, he is fast running out of them.
At least Bolt will have the opportunity to seek new track and field horizons when he moves on from Berlin. Owens was 22 when he wowed the world here. Two weeks after the Games he was banned by the Amateur Athletic Union for declining to join the rest of the United States team on the Scandinavian leg of a hastily extended European tour.
He returned home to the sobering reality of having to ride at the back of the bus and being turned out of restaurants because of the colour of his skin. There was no White House reception for him. Franklin D Roosevelt, the US President, was scared of a backlash from Southern voters.
Hitler and his Nazi henchmen apart, Owens was feted wherever he went in Berlin. He was mobbed by adoring fans. Whenever he stepped into the stadium, there would be mass chants of "Yess-say...Oh-vens, Yess-say... Oh-vens."
There was something similar in the Olympiastadion on Friday night when the star of these Berlin World Championships stepped on to the rostrum to receive his 200m gold medal. "Happy birthday dear Usain," the crowd sang in unison. Bolt wiped away mock tears. He never can resist playing to the gallery, the Jamaican Jester – the quickest, coolest clown of all time.
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