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BEIJING 2008

Bolt's victory in 100 signals a sea change

Latest world-record run by Jamaican reinforces Caribbean dominance in track's glamour race.

August 17, 2008|Philip Hersh | Special to The Times

BEIJING -- Usain Bolt isn't among the many athletes who listen to music with headphones before they compete. His coach, Glen Mills, doesn't allow it, worrying it will interfere with Bolt's concentration.

But that didn't stop Bolt from doing a little dancing before he stepped into the blocks Saturday night at the Olympics, before the crowd of 91,000 at the Bird's Nest went quiet for the start of the men's 100-meter final. He was moving to a music in his head that he later said was nothing specific, undoubtedly just something in the lifeblood of athletes from the Caribbean, six of whom were in the race.

Maybe he was hearing the reggae of his native Jamaica, since it had three runners in the final, or the calypso that comes from Trinidad and Tobago, because it had two finalists, or the tumba and kaseko sounds from the five islands that make up the Netherlands Antilles, which had its first finalist ever.

The gun fired and Bolt started moving straight down the track, and then, after 80 meters, he began grooving to the crowd. His movements became as much boogie as sprint, with arms spread wide, then his right hand slapping his heart, a full-body celebration of footwork like none before in the history of running.

Bolt won the 100 meters in a time, 9.69 seconds, that broke his 11-week-old world record of 9.72 and could have been much faster had he not turned the end of the race into Carnival.

His rivals still couldn't catch up. Richard Thompson of Trinidad and Tobago ran a personal-best 9.89 and was farther from first than any Olympic silver medalist since 1984. Walter Dix of the United States was third in a personal-best 9.91, and Churandy Martina was fourth in a Netherlands Antilles-record 9.93.

Asafa Powell of Jamaica, the former world-record holder, had two left feet at the big dance again, finishing fifth. Reigning world champion Tyson Gay of the U.S. was eliminated in the semifinals, unable to make up for time lost to a hamstring injury six weeks ago.

"In the past the United States sprinters dominated," Thompson said. "It feels good for the Caribbean to be creating this kind of dominance, and for me to be a part of it."

Never before Saturday had there been more than three Caribbean sprinters in an Olympic men's 100 final. Never before had there been three Jamaicans or a Jamaican champion, even if emigres Linford Christie won for Britain in 1992 and Donovan Bailey for Canada in 1996. Hasely Crawford of Trinidad and Tobago was the only previous Caribbean athlete to win the 100 title (1976) for his own country.

"When you go to Jamaica and you see how track and field is respected in the country, they should have the Olympic champion," said Ato Boldon, a four-time Olympic sprint medalist from Trinidad and Tobago. "They have given such gifts to the sprint world, whether it be to the United Kingdom, or whoever.

"For the Caribbean, this final said that the things I used to dream of, I'm seeing in my lifetime."

Jamaica has 2.7 million people, Trinidad and Tobago 1.1 million, the Netherlands Antilles 223,000. The U.S., with 303 million, had two finalists.

"It's not so good for the United States, but it's good to see the little countries dominate," said International Olympic Committee member Hicham El-Guerrouj of Morocco, Olympic 1,500 and 5,000 champion in 2004.

Jamaican women were the three fastest qualifiers for today's 100-meter semifinals, ahead of three Americans. Kerron Stewart, the fastest (10.98), is favored to give Jamaica a sweep of the 100 titles.

Jamaica began making an impact on sprinting in 1968, when Lennox Miller, who also ran for USC, won a silver medal in the 100.

Miller's path was typical of most Caribbean sprinters, many of whom escaped poverty on the island through scholarships at U.S. universities.

Trinidad's Crawford went to Eastern Michigan, Boldon to UCLA, and Thompson just completed his eligibility at Louisiana State.

"Track and field in the Caribbean is just getting better and better," said Trinidad's Marc Burns, seventh Saturday, who went to Auburn.

The third Jamaican in Saturday's final, Michael Frater -- sixth in a personal-best 9.97 -- went to Texas Christian.

Bolt, 21, and Powell, 25, are part of a generation that has chosen to stay on the island to train.

"They are a good inspiration to the next generation," said Jamaican doctor Herb Elliott, a member of the international track federation's medical commission. "We used to lose a lot of our athletes. They went to the States, they got themselves in trouble, the coaches overworked them, some didn't complete their education.

"What we are trying to do is keep them at home, expose them to high-performance training, and this has paid off."

A few years ago, Jamaica's University of Technology added a sports program created by former San Jose State sprinter Dennis Johnson, who wanted the country's athletes to have a chance to mix sports and training as he had done in the U.S. Jamaican colleges, based on the British system, offered no such opportunity.

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