James Lawton: Jamaican has talent to burn and, pray God, he's clean

Sunday 17 August 2008 00:00

What Usain Bolt did here last night was in one way as breath-taking as the achievement of Ben Johnson in Seoul 20 years ago and in another, pray God, wasn't. Johnson ripped apart his opposition, which included the great Carl Lewis, smashed the world record, and pointed a single finger in the sky.

Bolt also made his rivals look foolish in their futility, slapped his chest and celebrated before the line and still ransacked his own world record, pulling it down from an already staggering 9.72 seconds to 9.69.

Where the praying comes in is in the hoping that he did it, unlike Johnson, clean – and that indeed the world has found a perfect example of the human body at its fastest and its most efficient. This certainly is the belief of the man whose 12-year-old Olympic record was also crushed beneath the ground-eating strides of the new champion who has the raw and natural talent, and the reassuringly gangling and not excessively muscled body, to offer the tingling hope that he may just lead the most embattled corner of track and field into a new era.

Donovan Bailey, Jamaican-born like Bolt, believes that not only is Bolt clean, he is also indeed the great hope of the sport that for so long has been spilling credibility. "I knew he would win before the gun: it was an absolute certainty," said Bailey. "This man has talent to burn. He is out on his own. He bewildered his coaches when he was a kid. They thought he was too tall, too straggly, to make an explosive sprinter. They were overlooking a jewel of a talent.

"If I'm handing my Olympic record to the greatest thing that ever happened to track and field, well, I'm OK with that. Really, I'm more than OK. I'm thrilled because we only get to see something like that tonight once or twice in our lifetimes."

In Seoul it was said of Johnson after his then stunning time of 9.79sec that he had carried us to the stars. Then, when the laboratory results came in, the judgement was that he had pitched us into the dirt.

Where should we sensibly place ourselves in the wake of Bolt's astonishing run, his absolute rejection of the possibility of any serious challenge? Should we innocently salute the new messiah of speed, the athlete of athletes running to the tune of his late compatriot Bob Marley's 'Redemption Song'? Or should we say to hell with all that choking suspicion, that we should give Bolt the eternal right of being believed innocent until proven guilty? The august and impeccably correct figure Herb Elliott, Australia's Olympic champion middle-distance runner insists the latter course should be taken. Elliot is now a doctor and he says that Bolt should have the benefit of the doubt after a stream of negative tests, six of them in the Olympic build-up.

It is the most tempting of the invitations. Who wouldn't want to believe in the easy going young man from the Caribbean, who insists that he will never mistake the result of a foot race for something that might warp his life. "I like to go out and have some fun," he says, "and that's what I was having tonight."

Fun? It was rather more than that. It was a sensational statement about his ability to push back the barriers of his sport. When he went into his goofy victory routine at the approach of the line, the eyes of much of the world swivelled to the big dazzling scoreboard. In the stadium there was electricity in the air in the fraction of time it took to flash Bolt's time.

It was the same in Seoul. Johnson, it seemed, had created a new sporting world. He had raced into unknown country. Undoubtedly, Usain Bolt did that here last night. But he also provoked as many hopes as fears. It helps that he is such a sunny character while Johnson was introspective, painfully conscious of his stutter, angry at the world for that and heaven knows what else.

Bolt has come to our attention like some quirky Caribbean breeze. His stride rate of an amazing 41 over 100 metres has been a source of fascination from the moment it was counted out. So too is the most unlikely physique for a flat-out flyer. But much of the rest remains a mystery. Is there another man behind the easy-mannered pursuer of a happy, uncomplicated life? We will see enough in the onrush of his fame. Perhaps in the meantime we should merely celebrate suddenly the most riveting sight in sport. Prayers are optional, but also might be a good idea.

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