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Jamaican Runner Gives a ‘Bolt’ to Summer Olympics

August 22, 2008 at 6:30 PM EDT
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Ray Suarez speaks with sportswriter Christine Brennan about the athletic triumphs and disappointments of the Beijing Games, including Jamaican Usain Bolt's world record breaking track and field performances.

RAY SUAREZ: Christine, welcome back to the program.

I guess these Olympics have a new breakout star in Usain Bolt?

CHRISTINE BRENNAN, USA Today: They do, Ray. You know, it’s kind of funny, because when Michael Phelps stepped out of the pool Sunday morning here, Saturday night in the states, I never would have thought it’d be possible that another athlete, another individual could show up, and perform, and make us at least think he might be Michael Phelps’ equal.

And that is what Usain Bolt has done here in the men’s 100 meters and then the men’s 200 meters, winning both, and not only winning both, but also setting the world record in both, the first time any man has ever done that at the Olympic Games, not Jesse Owens, not Carl Lewis, but now Usain Bolt.

And for a games that needed a jolt in the second week — no pun intended — there’s the lightning bolt. It’s a fantastic story, really, because he is so personable, controversial a little bit with his celebration.

But it’s riveting stuff. And it’s just what these Olympics needed when Michael Phelps was gone to kind of give it a shot in the arm as we head towards the final few days.

RAY SUAREZ: Is Usain Bolt just the best-known name of a Jamaican Olympic team that’s packed with stars?

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Oh, my goodness. In fact, Jamaica is dominating the sprints, male and female runners, and the United States is really, unfortunately, the one that’s kind of taking it on the chin in that sense, because the U.S. is known for its dominance in sprints at most Olympic Games. And in this case, the U.S. men and women are behind the Jamaican men and women.

Track and field's comeback

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: But I do think, you know, with Bolt, if you think about the exuberance and the excitement, especially after the 200 meters, Ray, where he didn't hot dog during the race. It was only afterwards he was jumping around and enjoying it and wearing his flag.

And I think for a sport, track and field, that has basically been DOA, dead on arrival, for the last 20 years, since the Ben Johnson saga, of course getting his medal stripped at the 1988 Seoul games, all the way through to Marion Jones, who lied about her steroid use and performance-enhancing drug use, and really has been a devastating blow to the sport, to think that now there is this breath of fresh air.

Jacques Rogge and everyone in the IOC and around the world should be celebrating that track and field is having an excellent week and has a new star to enjoy and revel with.

A 'boost for a nation'

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you mentioned American disappointment along with Jamaican success. Is that emblematic of these games in a sense, that on any given day a small country can come out and beat the favorite?

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Yes, it is. And I think we're seeing it as much in these games as anywhere else.

Part of it is just increased training, the money that's available to developing nations, the concern about developing nations, and the hopes that they would do well, and sometimes that they can produce a great talent.

There's also a country like Great Britain, which has never been a great power in the Summer Games, at least not since -- in the last 40 or 50 years, and here they are performing fantastically well heading into the London games of 2012. And so, you know, you sometimes see that boost for a nation.

I also think that, because of the U.S. college system, Ray, so many of these athletes from other countries come and are trained through NCAA programs and have college scholarships.

So even if the U.S. sometimes looks like it's the loser in the sense of having other nations beating the United States in some of these sports, often it's because of the training ground and the feeder system that the U.S. colleges provide.

And then these athletes go back to their nations competing for their nation, and sometimes beating U.S. athletes. But I don't know that we'd have it any other way, because, of course, that's what the United States is all about.

China's huge disappointment

RAY SUAREZ: Along with the great successes of some of these standout athletes comes one huge disappointment for China, and that's the story of Liu Xiang. Tell us more about it.

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Yes, you know, that was something that was going to be the marquee event, the men's 110-meter hurdles, Ray, the entire nation looking to Xiang, looking to this man who's been on magazine covers, every billboard, all the television commercials.

And he pulled up lame in the first moments of his first qualifying run with a bad Achilles tendon and had to apologize to the nation. People were crying in the Bird's Nest.

It would be as if Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal and Dot Richardson and Mia Hamm all pulled out of one Olympic Games en masse for the United States. It would be that big of a deal.

There's no one athlete, I don't think, that we could compare this to for the United States in an Olympics, especially in an Olympic Games that the United States might have been hosting.

A devastating blow for China. A very embarrassing and sad moment in some ways for the nation, even as they understand their hero is injured, the thought that he couldn't perform here on the grandest stage that his country will ever give him, of course, is a very sad moment for everybody.

RAY SUAREZ: Christine Brennan, thanks a lot.

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: OK, Ray, thank you.