Powell’s brilliance traced to humble beginnings

Jamaica’s world record holder Asafa Powell seems to have a persistent problem with his groin. He has been hampered by an injury there again this season, possibly a repeat of the same problem when he disappointed in the highly anticipated Olympics three years ago because of it.

If we’re lucky, we might see the rapid Yardie in the Golden Gala meet in Rome, Italy on Friday.

Several athletes are gunning for him and his world record time of 9.77 seconds. The most notable two are this season’s equally speedy Tyson Gay of America and Bahamian Derrick Atkinson.

Gay is the fastest man in the world this season and has already run a season’s best of 9.84secs and even a wind assisted 9.76secs. I suppose with a surname like that he had to learn to run fast as a kid. At least he’s got a tough first name. Gay believes he can legally break the world record if he goes head to head with the Jamaican at the World Championships in Japan next month. Hopefully, both will stay healthy and no one will get busted for an illegal substance before that to spoil the spectacle.

Gay has paid tribute to Powell, saying the rivalry will help improve the image of sprinting in the sport. Boy, does it need that. Unfortunately, so many top sprinters in the past have tainted the sport’s image with positive tests that even the least cynical cannot say, hand on heart, that the problem has been eradicated. Probably never will be. We are, after all, dealing with human beings earning millions and if they can cut their best times by a sliver of a second, hey, it’s all part of the business. Total honesty disappeared with the first bite of that apple in the Garden of Eden. Cheating has always been endemic. Even the ancient Greeks used performance-enhancing drugs centuries ago.

Atkinson also has a personal best of 9.95 seconds, and two major wins this season. He claims the best is yet to come. They always say that. Powell remains the guv’nor. I wonder if it’s ackee and saltfish contributing to his remarkable speed.

Powell pulled out of the second Golden League Meet in Paris last week because of the groin injury but came and anchored Jamaica’s sprint relay team to victory at the Lausanne Grand Prix in Switzerland on Tuesday. So he looks ready for battle. “I suppose he won’t be in form to set a new record after his injury, but we’re happy to have him,” meet director Luigi D’Onofrio said crossing his fingers for a revenue-spinning appearance by Powell. Yet Powell won’t be running against Gay.

“He knew Powell was coming and so he decided not to come,” D’Onofrio said. “I don’t think they will race before Osaka because they don’t want to.” The World Championships will run from August 25-September 2.

Gay ran 9.84secs into a strong headwind at the US championships last month, then won the 200m two days later in 19.62, the second-fastest time in history. But like all American sprinters, he has a fragile ego and doesn’t want it bruised unnecessarily, unlike Powell who when fit refreshingly takes on all-comers with, eh, gay abandon.

Powell twice last year equaled his 100m world record. He went undefeated in the 100m last season and had an unprecedented 12 sub-10sec races. His fastest time so far this year was 9.94sec at the opening Golden League meet in Oslo, Norway, a month ago. Not bad for a 24-year-old who has clearly not peaked yet.

Amazingly, Powell was going to be an electrical engineer before he decided to start running. We would have been denied his electric speed but for his elder brother Donovan who was a 100m semi-finalist in the 1999 world championships. Inspired by Donovan and with the sibling rivalry kicking-in after big bruv told him to stick to football as he would never be a world-class athlete, Asafa decided to prove him wrong. Unlike many of his compatriots, Powell decided against moving to the USA to further his career and continues to train in Kingston where he often runs on grass wearing ‘flats’ (non-spiked running shoes). Rumour has it he runs so fast that the only training partners worthy of his attention are horses. (Just kidding!)

Powell first gained prominence four years ago at the World Championships when he suffered the ignominy of being the ‘other’ athlete disqualified for a false start in the semi-final where Jon Drummond memorably refused to leave the track having suffered the same fate. Drummond was later proved right but it was Powell’s quiet dignity that impressed. Drummond was a typical loud-mouth American with limited ability but at least he generated emotions, good and bad. Powell’s quiet demeanor does not make him a media darling, but the cliche letting his feet do the talking is apt.

The following season Powell was one of the gold medal favourites for 2004 Olympic 100m, after clocking sub-10 second times a remarkable nine times in a season. However, Powell finished a disappointing fifth in the Athens final.

The following year, some consolation was gained by breaking the 100m world record, in Athens which still stands. He beat American Tim Montgomery’s 2002 record of 9.78sec which was later annulled due to BALCO doping allegations against Montgomery. Powell won the 2006 Commonwealth Games title in a stroll but had to get through a drama-filled semi-final which saw two disqualifications, three false starts and Powell himself running into another competitor’s lane while looking at the scoreboard – he was held not to have impeded the other runner.

Powell’s world record was matched last May by Justin Gatlin’s blistering run but this was yet another American who later tested positive for drugs, so his record is currently under review by the IAAF. Can’t the Americans run without substance abuse? To date Powell has legally run under 10 seconds 27 times, tied with Frankie Fredericks. Only Ato Boldon (28) and Maurice Greene (52) have more sub 10 times to their name.

Powell’s brilliance can be traced to his humble beginnings in the quiet, rural settlement of Linstead, St Catherine and the product of a strict upbringing. His parents, the Reverends William and Cislyn Powell, didn’t allow their children to go to dances and shows. Discipline wasn’t an occasional thing – it happened every day, and it helped shape Asafa and his five older brothers.

The Powells have experienced their share of tragedy and suffering. Brother Michael was murdered in a cab in New York City. Another brother, Vaughn, collapsed and died on a football field in Georgia. Reverend Powell himself was shot in the jaw during a robbery attempt. But the family’s close bond and devout belief in God have kept them going even in times of great adversity and sadness. To his credit, Powell stays grounded, despite banking zillions.

He still retains an air of arrogance though, essential for any world beater. ‘When I run, I don’t think about my competition,’ Powell says. ‘I just do what I have to do.”

‘Asafa’ means ‘rising to the occasion’. How appropriate, then, that we’re likely to see his name in the record books forever. After all, he will still be only 25 at the Beijing Olympic Games next year. As sporting role models go, he’s up there with the best. Just don’t shatter our illusions and get caught with the wrong chemicals in your system, blood. (Additional information supplied by AP)

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