Struck by lightning: Bolt’s legacy is hard to replicate
By Ron Shillingford
“I want to be considered in the same league as the likes of Pele, Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan and other greats of their sport,” declares Usain Bolt on the eve of the Rio Olympics at a press conference.
Afterwards, he sambas out, sandwiched between carnival queens. And so the tone is set; athletic brilliance before full-on partying.
Two weeks later, just before the Jamaican celebrated his 30th birthday, his “triple-triple” goal of 100m, 200m and 4 x 100m relay gold achieved for the third consecutive Olympic Games, he bowed out content in the knowledge that a place in the sports pantheon is assured.
The next Olympics is Tokyo 2020 and the likelihood of adoring fans witnessing another lightning-Bolt victory salute is improbable.
Even he acknowledges the diminishing effects of ageing. After galloping round for the 200m gold, a country mile ahead of rivals, Bolt admitted that he was trying to break his own world record, “but my body would not respond to what my head was telling it to do”.
His signing-off statement may resonate for decades: “I hope I’ve set the bar high enough so that no-one can ever set it again.”
Although Bolt insists that the World Championships in London next year will be his final curtain, there is an outside chance that the world’s fastest man – form and injury permitting – may be coaxed into a definitive swan song in Tokyo. After all, Michael Phelps was adamant that London 2012 was his last Olympics, yet after a two-year hiatus, he could not resist the lure of swimming competitively again and bowed out in Rio with another clutch of medals.
The Caribbean had another fruitful Games in track and field in Brazil. Jamaica and Cuba finished with 11 medals apiece. Jamaica scored one more gold medal than Cuba, with six.
The Bahamas finished with two, while other Caribbean nations had one apiece: Trinidad & Tobago, Dominican Republic, Grenada and Puerto Rico.
Bolt’s achievements are nigh on impossible to surpass and if so, no-one is likely to have anything like the same sense of purpose, coupled with his amazing playfulness and charisma.
Of the other iconic moments by Caribbean track and field athletes, Shaunae Miller literally plunging herself into a dive to win the women’s 400m for the Bahamas is memorable. The adage “no pain, no gain” could not have been more apt.
Elaine Thompson surged to double gold for Jamaica in the 100m and 200m and took silver in the 4 x 100m relay, eclipsing the silver and bronze achieved by compatriot Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and in effect becoming the island’s new track queen.
Filling the void
There is no obvious talent to fill the huge void that Bolt leaves.
Nevertheless, Shayne Fairman, sports reporter at the Jamaica Gleaner newspaper, is confident his compatriots will continue to excel.
“We were very successful in terms of gold,” he told Caribbean Intelligence©.
“It was a big team, but one in transition. As well as Bolt, Shelly-Ann, Asafa Powell and Veronica Campbell-Brown are outgoing. They led the charge, but a few youngsters broke in, such as Shelly-Ann’s replacement, Elaine Thompson. She is the future.
“Yohan Blake delivered, but he still needs to time to rehabilitate from injury. In terms of a Bolt replacement, we don’t see it as yet. I personally think that his spikes will never be replaced.”
Blake, 26, made a big impact when starting out but after a series of injuries, but Fairman said that “his confidence has been shattered from that”.
Bolt and Blake share the same coach in Glen Mills, and Fairman believes that Mills will have to rely on the sprinter nicknamed by Bolt as “The Beast” to be the Racers Track Club torchbearer.
Nickel Ashmeade was in the triumphant Jamaican 4 x100m relay team in Rio but, at 26, is no longer considered a potential individual champ.
“He has not stepped through the door as yet and I don’t know if he’s going to do it,” says Fairman.
“He could very well be replaced by the next Games. There might be somebody new who runs the times and gets the spot.
“There are names who will get better, who change camps and get new coaching and will come to the fore in the two years leading to the championships. I think it’s too early to call.”
Ones to watch
Jamaica’s Omar McLeod, 22, won gold in the men’s 110m hurdles.
“We haven’t won that event ever, so it was one of the big performances,” said Fairman.
Hansle Parchment, another Jamaican sprint hurdler, who won bronze at London 2012 and silver at last year’s world championships, was injured for Rio. At 26, he too could be challenging for medals in Tokyo.
Sean Grant is head of sports at Jamaica’s Klas Sports radio station. He expects Caribbean track and field to “take a dip” because Bolt is a “phenomenon and when he disappears, you have to wonder where the entertainment is going to come from”.
“But it’s not only the entertainment, but the performances. When you look at the 100m and 200m, you have to wonder who will win. There’s no-one to point to, “Grant told Caribbean Intelligence©.
Although Grant expects Blake to be fully recovered by next year, there are still doubts over whether he will fulfil the potential shown in winning the 100m world championships in 2011, when Bolt was disqualified after false starting.
From the talent emerging from the under-20 world championships in Bydgoszcz, Poland, last month, Jamaica’s next generation will be well represented in Tokyo, Grant believes.
Tiffany James won gold in the women’s 400m and Jaheel Hyde triumphed in the 400m hurdles. They also went home with three silvers and three bronzes.
Jamaica’s two best male youngsters ran in the preliminary 100m relay heats in Rio. Kemar Bailey-Cole, 24, was the Commonwealth Games champ two years ago. Jevaughn Minzie, 21, showed immense potential as a junior and is progressing nicely.
As far as Grant is concerned, Thompson is already a superstar, having run under 22 seconds repeatedly in the 200m. He puts her in the same bracket as the legendary Jamaican Merlene Ottey.
“Elaine is one for the future and I think she will get even better.”
Grenada and Trinidad
Although Keshorn Walcott took bronze in the javelin in Rio, the Trinidadian was even better at London 2012, sensationally winning gold at the age of 19.
Nevertheless, his medal this time was an excellent performance and barring injury and drastic loss of form, a podium finish in Tokyo is quite possible.
“Walcott is still one for the future; he is a very good, established thrower. However, on the track, the Trinidadians were once regular finalists but on the male side, maybe because of injuries, they are not regularly reaching the finals,” said Grant.
In the 400m, Trinidad & Tobago have a few athletes coming through, including 20-year-old Marcel Cedenio, fourth in Rio in 44.01 seconds, whom Grant expects to develop into a podium finisher.
“I’m expecting him to run 43 seconds within the next two years.”
Like Walcott, Grenada’s Kirani James destroyed predictions at London 2012, winning the 400m, also aged 19. This time, James took silver, left trailing as South Africa’s Wayde van Niekerk smashed Michael Johnson’s 20-year old world record, finishing in 43.03 seconds.
“Kirani James was beaten by a world record,” Grant says.
“He still ran close to his personal best and you can’t ask for anything more. He was beaten by an outstanding athlete and if Van Niekerk continues with performances like that, he could one day rank alongside Usain Bolt.”
Grant sees another young Jamaican, Omar McLeod, as an emerging superstar.
“This man was relaxed throughout. In the final, he was relaxed and let it loose in the final part of the race. I think he can bring down the world record from 12.8 seconds in the next two years. He is going to be a world-beater for years to come.”
Johnson Richardson writes for the Grenada Informer newspaper.
“We are basically happy with Kirani’s silver,” he told Caribbean Intelligence©.
“He ran his best. We would have liked to have a win for him; unfortunately, that didn’t happen but it was satisfying that he went out there and ran his best.”
Success in the Caribbean DNA
Following his exploits at London 2012 and many CARIFTAs (Caribbean junior championships) before, the Grenada government has invested heavily in a new facility and many youngsters are now involved in track and field there.
When Bolt retires, Richardson does not “see the Caribbean being short-changed in quality athletes”.
He added: “The governments have invested in a number of quality stadiums and better facilities and made heavy investment in those areas. It’s a good thing Usain Bolt was at the forefront, because the Caribbean will not be short-changed at all.”
Brian Lewis is president of the Trinidad and Tobago Olympic Committee. He puts Bolt in the same bracket as other sporting superstars, particularly the legendary West Indies cricketers and, despite the maestro’s impending retirement, Lewis sees no abatement of astonishing performers.
“I remain extremely confident in the context of track and field in the Caribbean, we will continue to produce great track and field athletes,” he told Caribbean Intelligence©.
“It’s in our history ever since the Caribbean islands first participated in the Olympic Games in 1948.”
He extends congratulations to “our Jamaican colleagues because they deserve every ounce of success they have gotten... because they have put a lot into track and field.
“Success is now in their DNA. They take enormous pride in producing Olympic champions and put a high priority in the Olympic Games.”
Lewis believes that for the “foreseeable future, they will lead the way” and based on the “strong and strident” performances of the Trinidadian team in Brazil, the country is “maybe waking up to taking the Olympic Games seriously”.
Lewis feels “blessed to have such a talented athlete in Keshorn Walcott, because he is competing in a sport which is a different discipline, not done before in the Caribbean”.
He added: “This is a young man who at the age of 19 stunned the world. There were many who said that his performance was a fluke and he just happened to be lucky. Yet he proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he deserved and is a deserving champion.
“I think at the age of 23, if he continues on and stays healthy, he will prove to be one of the greats.”
Lewis predicts bright futures for Trinidadian athletes Cedenio and Michelle-Lee Ahye and several athletes in other sports.
“Notwithstanding some severe criticism, the future is very bright,” he says. “You have to continue to aspire for greatness and set the goal. I have no problem reinforcing the goal of 10 more Olympic medals by 2024. I know there are things we can improve, but I am very confident we will put those things in place.”
Of the other prospects for track and field honours in Tokyo, those who shone in Rio include:
- Shericka Jackson, a 22-year-old Jamaican who won bronze in the women’s 400m and silver in the 400m relay
- Cuba’s Denia Caballero, 25, who took bronze in the women’s discus
- Akela Jones, a 21-year-old novice hepthalete from Barbados
- and men’s 400m specialists Bralon Taplin, 24, of Grenada and Javon Francis, 21, of Jamaica.
Bolt’s legacy looks set to endure as the Caribbean’s next generation aspires to emulate his immortality.
Ron Shillingford has worked as a sports journalist in the UK and the Caribbean. Caribbean Intelligence is under copyright. Email us if you would like permission to reproduce this article.