Is arrogance a necessary component of sprinting?

Clare Forrester

Wednesday, July 18, 2012    

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A few barbs have been thrown in the direction of Olympian Usain Bolt recently, implying that he needs to tone down on his arrogance, suggesting that by so doing he may be a more acceptable icon nationally as well as globally.

I recall interviewing Colin Jackson, a former British 110-metre hurdles World Record holder of Jamaican parentage. At the time (1993) I was working on the biography of Merlene Ottey and was seeking his impression of Merlene's persona. Jackson pointed out then that most successful sprinters could be characterised by arrogance to varying degrees and he clearly didn't feel that Merlene was an exception. He also suggested that a sprinter requires a certain amount of arrogance in order to compete at international levels. Over the years I have found Colin's assessment to be spot on and especially relevant to us in Jamaica today when we have such an abundance of superbly talented sprinters - men and women. Bolt, rightly or wrongly, has been criticised as being too arrogant ever since he won his first gold medal in Beijing and even more so in the wake of his other non-track headline-grabbing exploits.

I think that much of the criticism is misguided. Sure, Bolt may be described as arrogant, but in my humble opinion he has always displayed dignity right alongside that arrogance. I don't think that his fans should expect or require any more than that. Besides, it is precisely his playful personality that makes him such a globally marketable commodity and has helped enormously in raising the international appeal of track and field athletics. Talent and showmanship in an athlete form a unique combination that should be welcomed, especially when worn with dignity.

Bolt's phenomenal achievements, including this acquisition of wealth, are heady accomplishments for any 25-year-old. Throughout all of this, I do believe he has behaved admirably, never embarrassing his family, sponsors and fans in Jamaica. He may very well be on course to becoming the "great man" as described by the goodly Father Richard Ho Lung.

Given the self-confident personality we know to be Bolt, I am hopeful that he will accept all the criticisms hurled at him as par for the course. However, I do believe that most of the criticisms are unfortunate and undeserved, reminiscent of utterances by the international Olympic Committee Chief Jacques Rogge at the Beijing Olympics. Rogge had said then that the Jamaican had not acted in the "spirit of the Olympic ideal" during his world record-breaking performances and failed to show respect to his rivals.

Rogge came in for some flak afterwards but he never retracted. Now four years later, he has sought to clarify those comments but in so doing reveals a lack of familiarity with the sport of track and field. In an interview last week with Jacquelin Magnay, Sport's Olympic Games editor of The Telegraph, Rogge advanced the view that the public misunderstood his true meaning. He claims he thought that Bolt's prancing and partying after the race was "good" (for the sport), but that he was against the athlete's "catch-me-if-you-can" antics during the race. That, Rogge claims, is where Bolt showed disrespect to his rival competitors.

The IOC chief appears further defensive in the interview by stating that: "Usain Bolt became an idol - and you don't touch idols." Even after four years Rogge makes no concession and seemed more bent on rectifying any damage to his own image.

By contrast, Michael Johnson's response in Beijing appeared well considered. He said then that Bolt's reaction was instantaneous, very brief and a natural one to an amazing and surprising set of circumstances.

Echoes of Rogge's criticism of Bolt are evident in Father Richard Ho Lung's recent letter to The Gleaner editor. The eminent Father implies that the superstar needs lessons in "humility", and while conceding that Bolt is a "great athlete" clearly does not feel that he is anywhere near being a "great man". Given Father's harsh overall assessment, it is unlikely that this "great athlete" could ever rise to such a status.

I also found Father Ho Lung's reference to Muhammad Ali, in the context of the absence of humility in athletes, to be disturbing. I certainly am not sure what precisely to make of his assertion that Ali "today can hardly articulate a sentence of proper English".

Over the years there has been a lot written and said about the arrogance of athletes in general and in particular sprinters. Given the overwhelming presence of Bolt in the global media, especially since the Beijing games, it was inevitable that the subject of "arrogance" would resurface on the public discussion agenda as the 2012 Olympics approaches.

Besides The Telegraph interview with Rogge, another writer - Justin from Flo Track - waded in on the subject recently under the heading "Persona in Sprinting" affirming that: "It is all about public perception and personal preference. Usually, if one likes an athlete, his pre-game big talking, or post-competition celebrations are welcomed behaviour. It is your idol who can do no wrong. If you had negative feelings towards them from the start, anything they do that you can find a way to criticise, you will."

Congrats to that supreme blogger, Annie Paul, for a well-written article on Bolt: "Is he still the world's fastest runner?" published in Newsweek magazine on June 16. The article describes much of the concern about the sprinter's well-being without attempting to be judgemental. I also learnt that Bolt's recent motor vehicle accident was his fourth dating back to 2009.

Understandably, news about track and field will dominate the media over at least the next month. The public expects this and will depend on our scribes for clarity as well as accuracy. The report about Shelly-Ann Fraser Pryce's last-place finish in the 100 metres at the Diamond League meet last week was not especially helpful to readers, who must have been left wondering if the sprinter had already lost form.

Also one wonders about the story about the Sportsmax coverage of the Olympics promising to move away from the usual "American bias". In a discussion about inaccuracies noted in this article on the Association of Caribbean Media (ACM) e-mail forum, one colleague suggested that criticisms were "nit-picking". I disagree. In fact, I wonder why there has yet been no retraction to date about the misleading claims made on behalf of International Media Content (IMC) parent company of Sportsmax.

Congrats to the team at Kingston Communications, Michael Grant, Hubert Lawrence and Bryan Cummings for the very impressive publication, Power and the Glory, primarily about Jamaica's track and field exploits on the world stage post-World War ll.





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