South Belfast News sports editor Ed McGinley reflects on his personal sporting highlight of 2011 - a chance meeting with the world’s fastest man Usain Bolt in Brussels back in September

A Bolt out of the blue

By Ed McGinley

As three friends and I stumbled out of an up-market Brussels hostelry, in the early hours of a Saturday morning back in September, a certain Danish brewery’s well-known advertising campaign sprang to mind.

But, on reflection, even the PR executives at Carlsberg would struggle to conjure up a scenario that could eclipse the events of that particular night in the Belgian capital.

Thankfully there was proof. Without the camera and subsequent pictures, sceptical non-believers would have argued that the potent Belgian mead had gone to our heads. It may have. However, there was no mistake, we had enjoyed a soiree to remember in the company of the world’s fastest man – Usain Bolt.

The question is, how did three skinny distance runners from the Annadale Striders club, and one blow-in from Ballymena & Antrim AC, end up in the VIP section of a very select shindig?

Unfortunately it wasn’t anything to do with my Belfast Media Group press pass. That doesn’t even work at Casement Park these days.

Perhaps it’s best to start with why we were in Brussels in the first place – simply to watch the final Diamond League meeting of the year – the Ivo Van Damme Memorial, named in honour of the Belgian runner who was tragically killed in a car accident in 1976.

The Diamond League is a series of 14 athletics meetings, held across Europe, Asia and North America, which attracts only the global stars of the sport.

As the Brussels meet is the finale, it is widely viewed as the best one to be at. Essentially it’s the Olympics compacted into four hours of non-stop action.

The King Baudouin Stadium was a hive of expectation and energy as we made our way to our seats just in time for the 10,000m.

Much of the initial buzz was down to the appearance of Kenenisa Bekele. The world record holder for 5000m and 10,000m had been plagued by injury over the last two years before his impromptu showing at the World Championships in Daegu at the start of September.

That ended in failure for the Ethiopian who dropped out before halfway. Brussels would be a different story and the fans were promised something special. The opening 5000m was reached in a blistering 13:26.63 before a swarm of Kenyans fought for pole-position to secure the $250 on offer for leading each lap.

Like a coiled spring Bekele unleashed his famous finishing kick with 300m left to go. Yet, unlike previous years, it was not enough to extinguish the opposition’s fire, forcing the three-time Olympic champion to fight all the way to the line, breaking the tape in a world leading mark of 26:43.16.

That 25-lap joust set the tone for what was to come. And, as the noise was ramped up, the decibel level grew to an ear-bursting crescendo when a 6ft 5” Jamaican meandered along the side of the track towards his blocks at the 100m start.

Just the sight of ‘the Lightning Bolt’ had the crowd on its feet. The fastest man ever over 100m and 200m has transcended the sport of track and field.

His all-conquering performances, false starts aside, and his fun, swaggering demeanor have brought athletics back into the public’s consciousness. The 25-year-old is coolness personified. And, after his usual bag of tricks and poses, he took care of business in winning the sprint with the fastest time in the world of 2011 – 9.76.

Television doesn’t do Bolt justice. His raw speed, power and acceleration are even more jaw-dropping in close proximity.

His training partner Yohan Blake managed to steal some of the limelight minutes later – well just a smidgen. The 2011 100m world champion had moved up to the longer sprint for Brussels and blew away the field to post the second fastest half lap time in history.

Only Bolt has gone faster. Not even the great Michael Johnson could match Blake’s sizzling time of 19.26.

Other inspirational performances followed. There was a stellar women’s high-jump, won by Russian Anna Chicherova while Alistair Cragg broke Mark Carroll’s Irish 5000m record with a 13:03.53 clocking.

We couldn’t have asked for much more. It was a great night of athletics and we were more than contented. Little did we know but the evening was still in its infancy.

That’s because Millford athletics agent Ricky Simms went above, and beyond, the call of duty.

The Donegal man, Director of PACE Sports Management, has an eclectic mix of athletes on his roster, from bulky sprinters to waif-like marathoners. Bolt is the jewel in the PACE crown. Naturally Simms is a busy man, having to deal with the unrelenting demands placed on Bolt. Nevertheless he had time for a brief chat with one of our group.

Andersonstown man Dermot Donnelly, the Northern Ireland 5000m and 10,000m record holder, and Simms go way back. With that in mind Ricky suggested going back to the athletes’ hotel for a night cap.

Reluctantly we all agreed and after a quick change, and a long walk along Brussels’ cobbled streets, we reached the Hotel Bloom Rue Royale 250.

Once inside the ultra modern auberge, famous athletic faces mingled, relieved that a long season had finally come to a conclusion. Flawless human specimens huddled together in packs.

The perfect ambiance soon changed when Bolt, bedecked in a crisp white T-shirt, matching baseball cap and trainers, strutted out of the elevator.

Crowds gathered, cameras snapped and autograph hunters jostled. Waiting patiently in line, Simms introduced us to Bolt as his Irish friends. The Jamaican was only too happy to pose for a group photograph.

Within minutes Ricky had handed the four of us tickets for the after party proper.

An official car came to pick us up. Puzzled onlookers wondered who the quartet was.

After reaching our destination we strolled up to the club door, just in front of Bolt and his entourage, and the bouncers ushered us inside the converted old church.

Again we were satisfied, we had enjoyed our moment and were ready to disappear into the crowd with the masses until the hostess, on Ricky’s orders, gave us VIP wristbands.

Unwilling to bring Bolt across the hiving dance floor, the thoroughbred was escorted down through the cellar, through the kitchens and into the extravagant VIP lounge. We followed.

It was a surreal moment. I was reminded of the film Goodfellas when Ray Liotta’s gangster character Henry Hill received preferential treatment at the Copacabana.

Within minutes magnums of champagne were opened and premium vodka was dispensed. However, in typical Irish fashion we searched for something a bit more conventional – a few beers.

As the night progressed Bolt revelled in the limelight, and at one stage he hijacked the DJ box, which was up high where the pastor’s pulpit used to be.

Addressing his flock, preaching into the microphone he reaffirmed that he was the fastest man in the world and that 2012 would be his year.

As the London Olympics loom few would bet against Bolt’s prophecy becoming reality.

By 3am it was time for the Irish contingent to go. Sprinter Bolt, however, was showing uncanny endurance and was still in full flow.

Flagging down a taxi, startled by the crisp Belgian morning air we looked at each other. Did that really just happen we asked. It really did. Honest.

 

Usain Bolt will compete over 100m, 200m and the 4x100m relay at the London Olympic Games, from July 27 to August 12.­

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