Commonwealth Games felt the stardust effect of Usain Bolt
USAIN Bolt, at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow last week, confirmed that he is one of the genuine superstars in modern athletics. If anyone doubted it, the television viewership figures for Bolt's only event of the games — when he ran the final leg for the Jamaican 100-metre relay team — made the point. Over eight million people switched over to the BBC to see Bolt run. It was their largest audience of the whole Commonwealth Games.
Bolt blew into Glasgow trailing clouds of celebrity. He addressed a packed press conference. Then he renewed his acquaintance with the Royal family. Notably Prince Harry looked as star-struck with Bolt as he had been when he met the athlete for the first time in Jamaica.
But almost immediately a row broke out when Bolt was accused of saying that the Commonwealth Games were ".h.t.". The story made the front page of The Times newspaper and excited a storm of controversy. The truth about the story was not what the excitable British press made it out to be. For one thing, it was not a formal interview. A young woman journalist from The Times buttonholed Bolt in the street, in the rain, when he was waiting for his car. It was obvious, even from her transcript of the conversation, that Bolt didn't want to talk to her. He did describe something negatively, but it was not clear from the transcript whether he meant the weather, Glasgow itself, or the entire Commonwealth Games. From that scrap of conversation in the rain the media whipped up a story.
It took a Scottish journalist, in the Glasgow Herald, to put things in perspective: "The truth is, Bolt is correct, the Commonwealth Games are crap. It's a sporting competition without the sporting elite from America, Russia and China. The Olympics are the top, the World Championships second, and the Commonwealth possibly third. The US and Jamaican athletics trials could also be in there before the Commonwealth Games." The same writer went on: "Comments about Bolt were vicious, sarcastic and along the lines of him gracing us with his presence. Well, actually, he is. He's not fully fit and is probably here because his management and sponsors begged him. The Games are better off with him playing a minor role."
Having whipped up a totally phony row, the British media began to speculate as to whether Bolt would be booed when he finally appeared in front of the crowd at the championship. Of course, nothing of the kind happened. Bolt was greeted with rapture as usual. He went on to help the Jamaican men's relay team to an emphatic victory. Although Bolt is a six-time Olympic champion, it was his first gold at the Commonwealth Games, so he celebrated by prolonged laps of honour in the stadium, signing autographs, and posing for endless selfies.
Bolt has swept out of Glasgow with the same fanfare that he had swept into the city. Despite the best efforts of the British press, he remains a firm favourite with the British public. Track and field owes Bolt a great debt. He came along when a whole series of record-breaking sprinters (including Justin Gatlin, Tim Montgomery and Tyson Gay) had been busted for drugs. Bolt, with his unfeasibly long legs, restored credibility and excitement to the sport. But Bolt is not just very fast and drug-free, his charm and charisma have endeared him to people all over the world, including Glasgow. This is why he can command an appearance 10 times any other athlete.
Usain Bolt is living proof that, once an athlete is touched with stardust, they never shake it off. And he was undoubtedly the star of the 2014 Commonwealth Games.
Diane Abbott is the British Labour Party MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington