Big Read: The making of Usain Bolt

The fastest man in history, Jamaica's Usain Bolt. Photo / AP
The fastest man in history, Jamaica's Usain Bolt. Photo / AP

This is the story of the young boy who became an Olympic phenomenon. It begins in 1998 on the playground of William Knibb Memorial, a high school in Trelawny, a small town in the north of Jamaica.

It is lunchtime and two good friends, Usain St Leo Bolt - a gangly, awkward 12-year-old who enjoyed sport far more than immersing himself in his books - and Ricardo Gedes are bickering about who can run the fastest.

Gedes is adamant he cannot be beaten. Bolt knows he is quick but, privately, wonders if he has the speed to outgun his pal. Only a race will settle this argument but before they get on their marks, the local priest Reverend Nugent - who was listening in - offers an incentive.

'If you beat him,' Rev Nugent says, looking towards Bolt, 'I will buy you your lunch. If you can run faster than him, your lunch is free.'

With the spur of food, the challenge is accepted. Bolt takes off and dashes past Gedes. It is a scene that happens on schoolyards all over the world but this one has far-reaching connotations.

True to his word, Reverend Nugent buys lunch but on the way to the canteen, he imparts some advice. 'If you can beat Ricardo,' Reverend Nugent says. 'You can beat anyone.'

Back to the present and that surge across the yard is being happily recalled. 'We remember it well,' says Lorna Jackson, who has been teaching at William Knibb since 1981 and is now vice-principal. 'Usain told him that he had never enjoyed lunch so much.'

That may be true but that was the day something clicked. Bolt's passion back then was cricket - he was a bowler - and he was also a keen footballer but high school teachers had seen special athletic qualities in him when he took to the track; they realised all he needed was some coaxing for the vast potential to be unlocked.

Bolt, from an early age, could run like the wind, thanks to that long stride and pumping arms.

He was so quick that when sports day came around, he was limited to participating in two events to give others a chance of winning. He developed so quickly that in 2001, he won his first medal at the Jamaican High School Championship.

'That was a huge moment,' says Webster Thompson, senior teacher at William Knibb for over 30 years. 'That's where the competitive edge was developed. The championships are huge, the national stadium is always full. The kids have such bravado that you see them lining up saying "you aren't going to beat me and my school." Usain would look at his rivals and say "who's faster?"'

Adulation from his peers inevitably followed but keeping him disciplined was going to be crucial if he was going to become an elite athlete. He was taken under the wing of Pablo McNeill, who had represented Jamaica at the Olympics in 1964 and 1968 but had become a teacher at William Knibb in his later life.

McNeill, who passed away in 2011, was a huge influence on Bolt, nurturing that special talent, and his teachers afforded him every help to ensure he got the grades he needed by giving him extra time to complete assignments when they clashed with training. Yet perhaps the seminal moment in the making of Bolt came when he broke a girl's shoe and had been ordered by teachers to take it to nearby Falmouth to get it repaired. He refused, and that left the teachers with no option but to summon his father, Wellesley.

Usain Bolt plays a one-on-one basketball game with a young fan during a visit to the SkyCity Breakers at their training facility in Mairangi Bay. Photo / Dean Purcell
Usain Bolt plays a one-on-one basketball game with a young fan during a visit to the SkyCity Breakers at their training facility in Mairangi Bay. Photo / Dean Purcell

If Bolt thought excelling at sport would make him immune to discipline, he was about to receive a juddering jolt. It was when the penny dropped and he had an appreciation of what was expected of him.

'His father and mother (Jennifer) would not let him get away with anything,' Webster Thompson explains. 'Usain was well brought up and the day when he broke the girl's shoe, his father came here and disciplined him in front of us. He was told, in no uncertain terms, to get the shoe fixed. If his parents had not been firm with him, if we had let him do as he pleased, he would never have achieved anything. He was full of effervescence and mischief but he just needed to realise what he could achieve.'

Soon his date with destiny will be here and his attempt to win a third consecutive gold medal in the 100m and 200m will be watched by billions round the globe, who hope to see that megawatt smile and celebration as he crosses the line alone. His place among sport's immortals is already secure.

In Trelawny, the message they promote now to students at William Knibb Memorial is to 'Be a bold Bolt believer', that anything is possible if you put your mind to it and work hard.

What makes this tale so special is the fact that stardom has not diluted his ties to where it all began. When Bolt signed his contract with Puma, he insisted a clause be inserted that new track and field gear be sent to William Knibb every year. Bolt also bought the school a new minibus earlier this year.

He also returns to give talks to students. The one in January this year was particularly memorable. 'I was his Spanish teacher in ninth grade,' Lorna Jackson explains. 'He was never interested in learning but this year he came back and told me he wished he'd paid attention.

'Why? He knows there will be pretty girls in Rio who he won't be able to speak to! So when he was here this year, he said to the children, if you do anything, you make sure you listen in Mrs Jackson's class! We'll gather in a hall to watch him run in Rio and I'm certain he will show that there is no limit to what you can achieve.

'We look at him now but still see that little boy who was cajoled by Rev Nugent, the one who loves playing on his X-Box and eating chicken nuggets. He was a Regular Joe in school, an average student but he had this gift to run. He is now a world treasure.'

- Daily Mail

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