Search Box

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Usain Bolt's appeal

Usain Bolt has been in news again recently, with his three gold medals at the World Track and Field Championships in Moscow last week. I didn't catch the meet on TV, but, having read about his triumphs, was moved to watch a couple of videos of him on Youtube. (The ones of him dancing are always amusing.)

I then stumbled across this biopic of him. Although it's interesting, and captures his natural appeal, it's also a little propagandistic. At one point in the movie, it shows him at home in Kingston, playing dominoes with some of his friends, with a few girls laughing in the background. The narrator then intones, "And that's about as wild as it gets." Somehow I doubt that. (Other Youtube videos pretty much give the lie to that claim.)

The movie also makes him out to be an extremely hard worker, which has never quite been his reputation. At one point, it shows him on his hands and knees throwing up in practice. This scene looks staged. It looks as if Bolt is merely spewing out some Gatorade, and when his coach, Glen Mills, asks him if he's okay, Mills has a semi-smile on his face, as if to say, "Okay, I'll play along with this little charade that the director asked for, but I do feel sheepish about it."

But even if the movie is somewhat staged, it still manages to capture Bolt's appeal and his incredible popularity, both of which are completely real. Wherever he goes, he is greeted by huge throngs of adoring, screaming fans. Meet directors know that his presence will guarantee a huge gate.

Part of Bolt's appeal, of course, is that he is a double world record holder. But Haile Gebrselassie and Kenenisa Bekele, both from Ethiopia, were also recent double world record holders and Olympic champions, and neither ever generated a tenth the enthusiasm Bolt does, at least among non-hardcore track fans.

Some of that has to do with the fact that the sprints are more glamorous, dramatic events: the title "world's fastest man" carries more weight than "world's most enduring man." And watching a 100 meter dash, unlike, say, a 10,000 meter run, requires little patience.

But most of the difference can be attributed to Bolt himself. It always helps to be good-looking, and he is. (Steve Sailer once pointed out that Bolt has the head of an East African perched on a West African body.) His height and distinctive rollicking gait allow you to pick him out from across a stadium, always a plus for the charisma quotient. He also doesn't have the kind of swollen-looking body which screams steroids, as so many of his competitors do.

Mostly the crowds love his playfulness. He strikes a variety of humorous poses. He pretends to be an airplane. He shadow boxes. He makes faces. And he is loose enough to do these things in the last minute before a race. At a time when most of us would be so nervous that any attempt at a smile would emerge as a grimace, Bolt is mugging for the camera and obviously enjoying himself. Two weeks ago in Moscow, he pretended to be opening up an umbrella as a response to the heavy rain at the start of the 100.

After his races, Bolt expresses joy more eloquently than any other athlete I've ever seen. It's not a vituperative joy, where he wags his finger admonishingly at a disbelieving media, or shakes his fist in an "I beat these bastards but good" sort of way. It's more unalloyed: he continues to run after the race is over, prances over to congratulate his teammates, high fives all the fans who stick their hands out, hugs the mascot who is on the field, does the latest dance steps from Jamaica, and obligingly strikes his trademark archer pose. (This pose is, at heart, an exercise in self-mockery.)

Some of Bolt's gestures actually border on vamping, as when he "combs" his hair or smooths out his eyebrows for the camera. Most men would feel uncomfortable acting so fey, afraid that it might somehow compromise their masculinity. But Bolt feels no need to act macho.

Likewise, Bolt sees no benefit -- or obligation -- to act "dignified." (What did dignity ever get anyone, especially since the kind that is strived for is by definition false anyway?)

Finally, Bolt seems to have no political agenda. He doesn't see himself as a spokesman for "the oppressed." From the various Youtube clips, it's obvious he's most comfortable with other blacks; but he seems to hold no animus against whites.

You can't be an effective clown prince if you are burdened by machismo, or dignity, or an agenda. Bolt is blissfully free of these, which accounts for the twinkle in his eye as well as his step.


Anonymous said...

Interesting post. Before reading your post about Bolt, I'd never heard of him. He does seem to have a playful, freeing type of personality.


John Craig said...

Birdie --
I've written four or five posts about him. Always been a big fan.