One of the off-track highlights in Beijing last summer turned out to be an IAAF press conference on the afternoon preceding the men’s 200 metres final. Michael Johnson spent half an hour telling us just why Usain Bolt wasn’t yet ready to break his (Johnson’s) world record.
A few hours later, Bolt took just 19.30sec to ram MiJo’s thesis down his throat. And Johnson duly ate lashings of humble pie in his BBC TV commentary that evening. Now, with Bolt’s recent threat to begin attacking Johnson’s 400 metres record next year, MiJo will doubtless be more careful this time.
If Johnson is the immediate target, there is a more appropriate and illustrious Jamaican predecessor. The shade of Herb McKenley will also be stalking Bolt’s steps.
But for a few fractions of a second and a centimetre or two, McKenley, who died two years ago, aged 85, would have been the first Jamaican to win not only the Olympic 100 metres title, over 50 years before Bolt did it, but also the 400 metres, at which he was world record holder.
There have been so many great sprinters out of the Caribbean island in the 60 years since McKenley reached his peak that it was a shock, prior to Beijing to realise that no Jamaican, man or woman, had ever won the Olympic sprint crown. Bolt and Shelley-Ann Fraser soon put that behind them, along with their adversaries last August.
Furthermore, the whole Jamaican sprint squad made up for lost time, with Bolt winning three golds – 100/200m and sprint relay, all in world record times; with Fraser leading a clean sweep in the women’s 100; and with Veronica Campbell-Brown upsetting favourite Allyson Felix, and successfully defending her 200 metres title, while Kerron Stewart won the bronze.
Despite the women’s failure to get the baton round the one-lap relay, and emulate their men, Grand Slam is not an adequate description, for what the boys and girls in green, black and gold did to their sprint opponents in the Chinese capital. May be Grand Slaughter?
And the butcher-in-chief was Bolt, finally realising all the promise of that feat in 2002, when as a 15 year old, he had won the world junior 200 metres title, in his home capital of Kingston.
Nevertheless, eager as we journalists are for ever bigger and better performances, I asked, only half tongue-in-cheek why Bolt didn’t go for the 4×400 metres as well in Beijing. Coach and management rolled their eyes, and said there was plenty of time for that.
It seems that time has nearly arrived. And the IAAF responded to Bolt last week, saying that if he wished to go for an unprecedented triple – 100, 200 and 400 metres (not counting relays) – in the London Olympics in three years’ time, they would be happy to accommodate him with a suitable timetable.
McKenley is the model, the nearly man. In London 1948, McKenley finished fourth in the 200, and though world record holder (45.9sec) for the 400 metres, he took silver behind colleague Arthur Wint. But it was his performances in Helsinki 1952 that proved an extraordinary precursor to Bolt. For McKenley attempted the unheralded 100/400m double, and was only beaten to both titles in photo-finishes; to US third string, Lindy Remigino in the sprint, and to another Jamaican, George Rhoden in the quarter!
McKenley did finally win gold in the 4×400 metres relay in Helsinki. He was the architect for Jamaican success, pulling back a 12 metre deficit on the third leg, and contributing a then astonishing 44.6sec. But he already made history as the only man to compete in Olympic finals in 100,200 and 400 metres.
Bolt, of course made history himself in Beijing, the only man to break both world records while winning the sprint double; and combining with Nesta Carter, Michael Frater and Asafa Powell to set a relay world record in winning a third gold.
Now we have the enticing prospect of the young Jamaican, still only 22 (McKenley was 30 in Helsinki), going for a triple-header of individual golds, and maybe even two relay golds in London 2012. Success in all that would not only be making history in the grand style, but it would tie up the ‘greatest ever’ accolades for a very long time in the future too.