Bolt-mania electrifies track world
P.E.I.'s Jared Connaughton to race against
Olympic star tonight in festival
THE CANADIAN PRESS
TORONTO — Usain-mania officially hit Toronto on Wednesday, complete with beefy bodyguards and stretch limousines.
Jamaican sprint star Usain Bolt arrived to a jam-packed news conference, the likes of which Olympic sport rarely enjoys in Canada, on the eve of the Festival of Excellence at the revamped Varsity Stadium.
And if all hopes are pinned on the affable 22-year-old to be a saviour of a sport that’s taken a beating for years, it appears to be working.
“A lot of people put me up there and I’m OK with that,” Bolt said on the lofty expectations people have placed on him. “I’m trying my heart out, I’m doing my best, I’m showing the people my personality, to come out and watch and just enjoy track and field again.”
Bolt raced to three gold medals and two world records at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and his post-victory lightning bolt pose and his victory dances are enduring images from China. His astonishing performances earned him the 2009 Laureus World Sportsman of the Year Award, presented Wednesday.
The six-foot-five runner is the main headliner for the Festival of Excellence (TSN, 7:30 p.m. ET), an event that features a star-studded field of 50 Olympians, including Canadian hurdlers Priscilla Lopes-Schliep and Perdita Felicien, American sprinter Shawn Crawford, decathlete Bryan Clay, and pole vaulter Stacy Dragila, and Kenyan middle-distance runner Shedrack Korir.
Felicien said she doesn’t mind getting lost in the attention that’s being aimed at Bolt if it shines the spotlight on her sport.
“I don’t mind, this is great for Toronto,” Felicien told several dozen journalists assembled in a ballroom of a swanky Yorkville hotel. “It needs to be sustainable over the years, I don’t think Usain Bolt should be the only reason we have a major track fixture in Toronto, but thanks to him it’s opened some doors.
“But I didn’t know there this was this much media for track and field in Toronto,” she added, perhaps half-joking. “I’ve been to 10 national championships. . . you guys do exist!”
Toronto hasn’t hosted a world-class track event since the 150-metre showdown between Donovan Bailey and Michael Johnson in 1997 that turned into a bust when Johnson pulled up with an injury.
“We see the hype and crowds and the excitement in Europe, but we hadn’t seen that in North America in a long time,” said sprinter Jared Connaughton of Charlottetown. “For (Bolt) to bring back the sport to a global stage that competes with the NHL playoffs and the NBA finals, to have reporters here to cover a track and field event is pretty unique, especially in Canada.”
Bolt ran 9.69 seconds to win the Olympic 100, breaking his own world record. He followed that with a victory in the 200, running 19.30 to break Johnson’s 12-year-old world 200-metre mark. He capped the Games by running the third leg of Jamaica’s 4x100-metre relay that won gold.
The most astonishing thing about Bolt’s 100-metre race was he slowed down to celebrate a good 20 metres before hitting the finish line, prompting endless questions about how fast he can really go.
Bolt thinks 9.5 seconds is within reach.
“But I think it’s going to take a lot of work to get there,” Bolt told a throng of reporters squeezed around him six-deep. “But it’s going to take a lot of work to get there, I’m going to have to work hard always.
“I don’t go for times, for me it’s all about championships. I guess if I work hard and win championships, the time will come.”
Johnson, a five-time Olympic champion and nine-time world gold medallist, said the stars were aligned perfectly for Bolt in Beijing. So it remains to be seen how much faster he really can go.
“What we saw last year was certainly the most incredible athletic performance over a championship that I’ve ever witnessed,” Johnson said. “Now it will be interesting to see how he can follow that up.
“Obviously he has the ability to run faster, because had he run through the finish line there he would have run faster. (But) he will never have that opportunity again, there will never be a first Olympic Games for Usain Bolt again. . . another first opportunity to break a world record at an Olympic Games again.
“All those factors are certainly a part of his performance and why he was able to perform so great. That was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that he took great advantage of.”
Bolt has already broken the world record this season in the seldom-contested 150 metres, blowing away the field on a temporary track in Manchester, England.
The Festival of Excellence will be his first major 100 metres of the season, and he’s using the race to gauge his progress.
“Just go out there and see where I’m at, and stay injury-free,” Bolt said.
Connaughton and Anson Henry of Pickering, Ont., both Beijing Olympians, are the lone Canadians in the 100-metre field. Bolt’s main competition should come from Crawford, runner-up to the Jamaican in the Beijing 200 metres and the 2004 Olympic champion over that distance.
Crawford joked there’s only one way to beat Bolt.
“I’m going to go down to the (hotel) front desk and I’m going to tell them, `My name is Usain Bolt.’ Hopefully they’ll give me a key. I’m going to go up to his room and I’m going to tie him up and he’s going to miss the track meet,” Crawford said laughing.
As for the throng of reporters, the glare of the spotlight and the countless fans that have followed the Jamaican since that stunning two weeks in Beijing, Bolt said he’s come to expect it. Not that he’ll ever get used to it.
“I went down the street once to get some food maybe a month after Beijing, and I had to go back home. I couldn’t get the food,” Bolt said. “People kept stopping me, taking pictures, it was really rough.
“I decided next time to send one of my friends. . . It’s been hard, but it’s getting easier.”
Tickets for the Festival of Excellence at the 6,500-seat Varsity Centre range from $25 for “Lane 9” seats — street-side seating on the opposite backstretch — to $250 near the finish line.
Prince Edward Islander ready to race Bolt
New Haven, P.E.I.'s Jared Connaughton races against Usain Bolt at a meet in Toronto Thursday night.Jared Connaughton hopes to get a quick start on the world record holder. (CBC)
And while the spotlight has been on the Jamaican Olympic gold medallist, Connaughton told CBC News he's ready to run at the Festival of Excellence. He set a personal best last weekend running the 100 metres in a time of 10.09 seconds during a meet in Texas. Bolt ran a 9.69 at the 2008 Olympics.
Connaughton said he hopes to take advantage of his quickness out of the blocks.
"Bolt, if he has any weaknesses, which is, they're few and far between, but I think any weakness is probably his start," said Connaughton.
"On any given day I think I would be considered one of the best starters in the world. So if I really get out, I stay in my race pattern, I think, I don't know if I'm going to hold him off but I definitely think I'm going to run a fast race here in Toronto."
The P.E.I. athlete is also looking forward to the Canadian championships in a couple of weeks.
The 100 metre race will be run just after 8 p.m. ET, and is being televised on TSN.
Also in the race will be Toronto's Anson Henry.
Other Canadian Olympians competing at the Festival of Excellence include hurdlers Perdita Felicien and Olympic bronze medallist Priscilla Lopes-Schliep, 400-metre runner Tyler Christopher, Nate Brannen in the mile and women's 800-metre wheelchair racer Tracey Ferguson.