Before yesterday, I did not know who Usain Bolt was. Among the sports I have watched avidly are cricket, to some extent tennis and football and for the big events gymnastics and athletics. The first is for cultural reasons, the other two due to the fact that they had stars, always. And style. I knew the name of the tournaments and the players.
I also knew the big gymnasts and athletes. After cricket, my closest association could have been with athletics. I had what someone once said the legs of an athlete. At that time, it was meant as an insult to an awkward adolescence that was trying to hide a growing womanhood. I never did make it although I could run pretty fast. The reason being dizzy spells and blackouts that bothered me most of my school years. After the initial burst of energy I’d slump down with exhaustion as the sun would spin around me. I felt like arid earth denied the sprint to the finish.
I was a bookworm and a recluse. Sports do not make you an extrovert. It, in fact, forces you to delve deep into your inner reserves. Today, I have been watching clips of the record-breaking event where Bolt completed his 100 metres in 9.58 seconds in Berlin. As he gets closer to his goal, there is a moment when he looks at the side; it is precious because it expresses his oneness with the track and his co-runners. I loved what he said, “My body is like breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I don't think about it, I just have it.”
Make no mistake. The confidence comes from internalising the strenuous routine as a part of his persona. Think about it. What do 100 metres really mean? Nothing. It is just a length of space – we walk that much to run errands, thieves escape that distance, cops chase, and many people even rush after buses. But for the athlete it is like blinking so fast that you don’t miss anything. If this is turning logic on its head, then that is precisely the idea. You have to cover space, time and competition. And in doing so, you have to conquer your limitations.
As Bolt said, “My start is not perfect, but it's good, and I've got power. I've got a lot of things working for me, so I think if I get my start right it's going to be hard to beat me. It's all about putting the perfect race together.”
Starts are rarely perfect; it is the hesitation that acts as a prompter and pushes one leg ahead of the other.
Bolt is not from a wealthy background. He had to sweat it out. Is that what is the driving force – the naturalisation of stretching the limits of one’s circumstantial limitations? Now Puma is claiming him. He ran with minimal fuss.
It reminds me of the athletes I used to see at the Mahalakshmi Race Course grounds here, practising barefoot. That is how P.T.Usha ran in her village to reach where she did.
We in India continue to pamper our cricketers and tennis stars. We lost out on hockey due to such callousness. Our athletes still win medals despite not being treated as the heroes they are. We hear stories about how they are dumped in hostel rooms, have to travel in less than perfect conditions for their meets. For a few days they are heralded by the media. I will never forget how India Today did a makeover on P.T. Usha for a feature story to make her look glamorous. And this was a news magazine. I wonder why none of these sportspersons sought to move out of the country and find sponsors. I wonder what stopped them. Or did no one care to invite them?
A Jamaican minister might exult, “We are the sprint factory of the world”, but individual achievement, even if it represents a nation, is not an assembly-line product. It arises out of a person’s circumstances and desperation to reach the finishing line.
Usain Bolt says he cannot live outside his country. That country needs him. What drives his need? A sense of fidelity, I think. Not merely to the concept of nationalism. It is the soil he learnt to run on.
Usain Bolt New World Record: 9.58
For those who want a longer version it is here