|"I'm forty years old, and she still can't fall asleep unless I'm home safe at night."|
Monday, August 31, 2015
Saturday, August 29, 2015
|"I want to be a police officer."|
"What will be the best part about being a police officer?"
(Babusar Top, Pakistan)
|"What are you doing?"|
Friday, August 28, 2015
Even then it was too late. By the time a cameraman chasing the great champion had clipped his winged heels and sent them both to the deck, Bolt was halfway round his lap of honour and his latest line-up of victims trudging out of the stadium with their spikes slung round their necks.
The 100m final had been close. Only one hundredth of a second had separated Bolt and his rival Justin Gatlin on Sunday night, even if a chasm opened up between them in the aftermath.
This 200m showdown, the rematch, the chance for Gatlin to gain revenge and a little glory after all the controversy and carping of the last seven days?
This one was over in less than two-hundredths of a second. Bolt's reaction time from his blocks was 0.147 seconds. Gatlin's was 0.161. The gap between them would only grow.
For a man who has so regularly made the impossible real, Bolt's victories can also seem pre-ordained and predictable within moments of him hurtling alone through the line.
He is almost a victim of his own brilliance. There seems no room for doubt, even if it was an unacknowledged guest in minds around the world before he settled into his blocks.
It is another of his great conjuring tricks. Coming into these championships Gatlin had run more than two tenths of a second faster over 200m than any other man in the field this year, and almost half a second quicker than Bolt.
Only in Wednesday night's semi-finals had Bolt gone under 20 seconds for the first time, and then by the thickness of a yellow Jamaican vest.
Gatlin has been so consistently quick this year that his collapse in the 100m seemed surely to have been a costly aberration. Aim whatever other arrows you choose at him, but the 33-year-old has run through several eras of sprinting.
He won his Olympic title 11 years ago. A decade ago he left a gangly 18-year-old Bolt trailing home last as he won the World 200m title in Helsinki. He may lack remorse but not experience.
All that might count against any other opponent. Not Bolt.
Gatlin had to be up on him at 50m. He had to be dominating the champion's eyeline at 100m to hope to defuse Bolt's greatest weapon of all, that sweet acceleration off the bend and away up the straight.
Instead Bolt never even saw him. Away from the blocks, eating up the bend, warm night air between him and the supporting cast as they faded away behind him once again.
Gatlin was quiet afterwards, the simmering aggression of his Diamond League wins all summer replaced by a melancholy resignation.
He knows he may never have a better chance of winning back a global title. It is not just his age, although he will be 34 by the time of the next Olympic 100m final.
It is the opportunity tossed away, a perfect storm of brilliant form, struggling rivals and an undercooked Bolt blowing itself out in this windless steel stadium. If he hasn't done it here, why should he do it anywhere else?
At times in the last few years Bolt has appeared to be a man on a greatest hits tour. The defining moments are in the past but the showmanship remains. An audience grown up on his brilliance are desperate to see him before it is too late.
Except he is at number one once again. Ten World Championship gold medals now, as out on his own by that measure as he was thumping his chest through the line, another in his sights in the sprint relay; six Olympic golds, Rio and the chance for three more less than 12 months away.
It cannot keep going forever. The current end date is August 2017 and the next World Championships in London. The world records will probably sit untouched for a generation, but the man who set them will one day be gone.
It is why we should cherish every victory, even as they seem inevitable, every little vignette as the cameras come searching for him before he goes to his blocks, every selfie-laden lap of honour.
For even as his performances have defied precedent and logic, we can all understand what he does.
Kids cannot share the experience of driving a Formula 1 car. Very few will ever know what it is like to dribble through half a team like Lionel Messi or strike a drive almost 400 yards down a fairway like Rory McIlroy.
But we all grow up running, all grow up racing. It is sport at its purest, and Bolt is its perfect incarnation.
There is always more. He stretches those brief seconds of brilliance from a short into an epic; the games on the warm-up track, the play-acting behind the blocks, the talking down the camera as if it were just you and him and then the dancing and posing and signing of everything in the drawn-out aftermath.
It is why there were a million requests for the 80,000 tickets for 2012's Olympic 100m final and why Rio will be overwhelmed in the same way.
He has changed his sport, and he has changed us. And no-one is ready for it to end.
Thursday, August 27, 2015
Wednesday, August 26, 2015
|"When I'm bored, I call up Radio Pakistan and request a song, then I start dancing. I'll even dance on a rainy day. It's my way of expressing how grateful I am. I am the happiest man in Pakistan."|
|“Sorry, my English is not good. I’m here to climb mountains. I left my husband and sweet childrens back in Austria.” |
(Hunza Valley, Pakistan)
Tuesday, August 25, 2015
We often compare Usain Bolt to Muhammad Ali - not for his political convictions but his charisma, for the effect he has had on his sport, for the impact he has made on the world outside it.
Coming into this World Championships 100m final on a dark, sweaty night in this giant ball of cold steel, it seemed that we might get the old showmanship but not the old magic.
The best we could hope for, with the twice-banned Justin Gatlin on a 28-race unbeaten run, with Bolt injured for much of the summer and stumbling in his semi-final, was a defeat to set up a future redemption.
Ali's defeat by Joe Frazier at the Garden in 1971, without which the Thrilla in Manilla could never have happened; Bolt knocked out in the Bird's Nest to set up the Revival in Rio in 12 months' time.
Yet it seemed too great a burden for a man who has looked not only mortal this summer but for the first time truly fallible.
Bolt had raced the 100m on just two days this season before arriving at the scene of his unforgettable coronation in 2008. So bad was his pelvic injury that not until late July did he record a time that hinted he could even be competitive in Beijing.
Ali could compensate for his declining speed and the power and fury of his rivals with ringcraft and tactics, by scheming and slipping and refusing to surrender until the other man had fallen.
The 100m does not afford those nuances. Nine-point-something seconds. Which man gets there first. There is no hiding place and no time for comebacks.
And yet Bolt, once again, proved us all fools.
His was an ugly heat and a horrible semi-final. He almost fell from his blocks and had to fight with eyes-wide desperation to even make the final.
What could he possibly do up against the relentless consistency of Gatlin? These have been the American's times this year: 9.74secs, 9.75, 9.75, 9.78. In his heat he ran 9.83, in his semi 9.77.
When Ali went to Zaire to take on the dead-eyed might of George Foreman, witnesses to the build-up spoke of the fearsome percussive force of the ascendant's right hook on the heavy bag.
So it was with Gatlin's times. Bang. Bang. Bang.
Gatlin's camp was upbeat in the afternoon before this showdown, heavy grey skies and dark thunder clouds over the city, a portent for the superstitious of what might lie ahead for the sport if a man who has twice been banned for drug offences were to win its premier event.
There was not just confidence but near certainty. There was talk of a 9.6-something. There was talk of how much the 33-year-old American wanted the lane next to the ailing Jamaican, so he could shock Bolt mentally in the first few metres before destroying him physically in the next 95. There was talk of a new era.
Even on the blocks Bolt seemed beset by self-doubt. There were the usual games - pretending to smooth his hair back, playing peekaboo into the camera's lens when the world looked closer - but also sweat on his brow and a flicker to his eyes.
Lots of people have never seen Bolt beaten. He has been - by Yohan Blake at the Jamaican trials in 2012, by Gatlin himself in Rome two years ago - but never when it really matters, never on the world stage.
This seemed the moment for the old narrative to fall apart. Instead it was Gatlin - relentless Gatlin, predictably brilliant Gatlin - who cracked and fell.
From the blocks Bolt was ahead. At 20 metres he was relaxed. By 40 he was driving, and by 60 Gatlin was tying up - technique coming apart, rhythm going, those 28 victories falling away in his slipstream as the yellow blur to his left refused to come back to him.
Ali beat Foreman through rope-a-dope and bravery and immense mental fortitude. Bolt found his own way: belief when others wondered, speed when we feared it gone, a strength in body and mind that Gatlin could not match.
Bolt's reaction time to the gun was six thousandths of a second faster than Gatlin's. By the end the margin had stretched only a little, to a single one-hundredth of a second. A fraction between them, a chasm in charisma and class.
This was never good vs evil, as some tried to bill it in advance. Gatlin is a dope cheat, not a serial killer or child abuser.
Neither is it a new plot line. There have always been dopers and deceit among the fastest men and women in the world, whether it is Ben Johnson in Seoul or Carl Lewis failing three tests before he even got to those 1988 Olympics, Marion Jones winning in Sydney 12 years later on a blend of EPO and human growth hormone or her one-time husband Tim Montgomery using the same to break the world record before ending his career in jail for dealing heroin on the streets.
Bolt said before Sunday that he couldn't save the sport on his own. He hasn't. There were three other one-time dopers in this final. Tyson Gay, Mike Rodgers and Asafa Powell send out a message of their own: cheat and you can still prosper, cut a deal and you can come back in the time it takes a torn hamstring to heal.
But on a night that could have ended with the sport no longer teetering on the abyss but plummeting over it, the victories of Bolt and, a few hours earlier, Jessica Ennis-Hill in the heptathlon, gave the believers something to cling to and the doubters reason to perhaps think again.
One day Bolt will be gone, and with him the greatest wonder of our sporting age. Athletics must learn to both flourish without him and win some of the battles he has fought almost singlehandedly over the past few years.
For now we should give thanks for him and Ennis-Hill: smiling assassins of cynicism, unstoppable reminders that sport can sometimes be about hard work and heroics as well as the darker, dispiriting side of human nature.
Monday, August 24, 2015
As we sat in the departure lounge at Islamabad's Benazir Bhutto airport, waiting for our flight north to Chitral, Peter Oborne confessed, "The only thing that could go wrong is the Taliban sending a raiding party over the mountains." This is the kind of captain's warning that concentrates the mind.
But for a certain sort of Briton, the words "Northwest Frontier Province" retain a kind of intoxicating romance. This is the land of Kipling and George MacDonald Fraser, of Kim and Harry Flashman. These mountains - as impenetrable as they are magnificent - were once the backdrop to another Great Game, played between the Russian and British empires as they jostled for position and influence at the top of the world.
More recently, and at great price, the ghosts of Empire have returned to the mountains of the Hindu Kush. Few western tourists visit Chitral these days. The old hippie trail closed years ago and whereas before 9/11 as many as 4000 trekkers and holidaymakers might have visited Chitral every year, in 2014 little more than a tenth of that number travelled to these remote valleys. It is too far, too difficult, too dangerous.
But Pakistan, a cause and a country that's always on the verge of being lost but never quite is, repays a determined traveller many times over. No place could be more welcoming; no hospitality finer. No scenery grander either. And as our plane climbed over the Lowari Pass and began its steep descent into the Chitral Valley, all Pakistan's multiple difficulties seemed to fade away. We were the Wounded Tiger XI and we were here to play cricket on the old frontier of Empire.