“Champs”, widely acknowledged as the biggest high school track meet in the world, is where, well over a decade ago, the general public first caught sight of Bolt. Today his image looms large over the sport, commanding global attention and respect.
Bolt has repeatedly shattered world records and won gold medals on track’s biggest stages since his high school days, all while exhibiting flamboyance – some call it arrogance - and a signature pose which has branded him a superstar. Last summer he immortalized himself with an unprecedented third straight Olympic triple double victory – 100, 200 and 4x100 meters relay. Today, the name Bolt has become synonymous with speed - and not just in track.
“I was running so fast,” James Harden, an all-star guard with the Houston Rockets of North America’s National Basketball Association (NBA), said recently, “… I felt like Usain Bolt.”
“I’m gonna get Usain Bolt if I want speed,” said former National Football League (NFL) great Shannon Sharpe on his television show “Undisputed”.
Most of the world has embraced Bolt. His image is plastered everywhere, from underground train stations in China and England, to roadside billboards in Russia and Australia. He’s pitching watches, cars, drinks and sportswear in the United States. Bolt’s Twitter and Facebook accounts attract nearly five million and 20 million, respectively.
In Jamaica, he’s an unofficial national treasure. Attention inevitably spikes upwards anywhere Bolt shows up.
“We don’t have anything to say accurately,” explained Claire Grant, general manager for Television Jamaica, told Caribbean Today. “But we can say whenever Bolt is present people will watch.”
The world retains a huge Bolt appetite, even after a teammate tested positive for a banned substance causing him to lose an Olympic relay gold.
“Usain Bolt is a star, all around the world,” said Erica Hideshima, a television producer from Brazil who in late March “flew 10 hours just to be here (in Jamaica) to see him for 10 minutes … He’s a hero.”
Yet inevitability is sinking in. Bolt has announced he’s leaving track in 2017. Soon, like the ominous “whoosh” heard by Trinidad and Tobago’s Richard Thompson as Bolt blasted by him in the 2008 Olympic 100 meters final, he will be gone from competition. The IAAF World Championships in London, England this August is likely the 30-year-old’s last time racing in Jamaica’s colors - and carrying Caribbean hopes - at a major international meet.
Yet, although Bolt may be leaving track, it’s unlikely the sport – and world - will forget his impact anytime soon.
“Bolt transcended the sport and brought it to a new level and people’s interest followed,” explained Lennox Graham, a former Jamaican track athlete who coaches at Johnson C. Smith University in the U.S. “It now seems more attractive since Bolt.”
Graham is correct, but only partially. Bolt sparked more than a passion for track. According to Tourism Minister Ed Bartlett, he has dramatically raised Jamaica’s profile as a destination. People now visit Jamaica to see where Bolt grew up, what he ate, where he played. The entire Caribbean also claimed him, lifting pride and spirits in the region. So too the diaspora.
Outsiders, like American college scouts, swarmed to Jamaica as the phenomenon of Bolt gathered momentum. “As far as recruiting, more people are interested in the sport,” Graham said. “It was seen as more attractive. I think initially the effect was Jamaicans wanting to be like Bolt.”
Bolt’s success also led to a re-thinking of track. Like their hero, the cream of Jamaica’s track and field talent became more eager to embrace training at home.
Yet it took a while, according to observers, for even Bolt to understand how big his talent would become. He still holds the record for the 200 meters Class I boys (ages 16-19) at Champs. Yet acclamation that Bolt could become really special arrived earlier, in 2002, at the IAAF World Junior Championships here. Bolt tore up the field to take the 200 meters.
“At the time he didn’t seem to understand his talent,” Graham recalled. “He was just fun loving. But then he ran phenomenally at 15 years old.”
Jamaica’s track and field reputation was well established over half century before Bolt arrived. The likes of Arthur Wint, George Rhoden and Herb McKenley had seen to that. But Bolt raised the bar – considerably - for a nation and a region.
“He has assisted greatly in the rise of Jamaican athletes in the world,” explained Garth Gayle, general secretary of the Jamaica Athletics Administrative Association (JAAA), which governs the sport in the Caribbean island. “With a fit Usain Bolt at any championship we can challenge the world in sports and maintain such dominance.”
Longtime track and field experts saw it coming. Analyst Hubert Lawrence recalled his acknowledgement that “Bolt was fast” during the 2001 CARIFTA Games when he anchored the boys under-17 4x100 relay team.
“He fumbled the baton and he ran like the dickens to get Jamaica back in contention,” Lawrence said. “That got my attention. His attempt to recover lost ground showed he had high speed, acceleration … I thought to myself, ‘I better watch this guy’. The next year at the World Juniors he became Usain Bolt.”
He also became the athlete who changed the face of athletics. Races on the professional circuit end with whichever event Bolt is running. He transcended athletics to celebrity, appearing on global television shows and at pro sporting events outside track. He’s been made a Jamaican ambassador. Mostly, he sells tickets.
“He was box office now,” said Lawrence. A few year ago at Penn Relays in Philadelphia, a huge draw for thousands in the Caribbean diaspora, Bolt anchored Jamaica’s 4x100 team. There was plenty top events left on the popular relay carnival’s program afterwards. But the crowd had seen Bolt. They had seen enough.
“Many people left the stadium after Bolt ran,” said Lawrence. Now, as Bolt walks away from track in 2017, taking his giant shadow, many are wondering how much of track and field’s popularity will depart with him. The absence of one man will become track’s biggest story.