July 14, 2013
You can be fairly certain that there is at least one situation that would never arise when you interview sprint legend and bigger-than-life broadcasting personality Ato Boldon. It is highly unlikely that you could ever present a track & field question to Boldon upon which he would have no opinion. Brimming with passion for the sport in which he excelled as only few others have, Boldon - and his voracious love for track & field - simply cannot be repressed.
Boldon forged a distinctive career as one of the dominant world class sprinters of the '90's - medalling in two different Olympics ['96 and '00] and three different world championships ['95, '97, and '01]. As his competitive days began to wane, he sought other ways to stay involved with the sport he loved. Whether it occurred by design or by serendipity, Ato Boldon has done an excellent job in making an apparently-effortless transformation from world class sprinter to educated and insightful track & field commentator. His broadcast performances reflect his comprehensive pre-telecast preparation and the content of his comments demonstrates that he has worked hard to expand his knowledge beyond his beloved sprints to other track - and even field! - events as well. And - perhaps most importantly - his unbridled passion for the sport we love always shines through.
Boldon's extenuated journey has earned for him a special brand of respect. His dual-faceted career has conferred upon him a certain revered distinction only a very few in our sport can rightly claim. He is, in essence, an honored historian for track & field - aged enough to understand the "old school" aspects of our sport which is the genesis for all others, yet still young enough to relate effectively with the emerging generation of young track & field stars and to tap into the newly-revealed trends and attitudes of the sport.
Comfortable in this special pulpit, Boldon needs no urging to share his views about all things track & field. In a relaxed mood after completing a broadcasting stint at the USA outdoor track & field championships, the Trinidad & Tobago native is happy to expound on a variety of track & field topics.
His eyes begin dancing and his staccato delivery starts rolling when the man with 7 individual Olympic and world championship medals is asked to compare generations of sprinters - even the surfaces upon which they run. "It is like a trampoline now. They are running on a faster surface," explains Bolton in discussing the evolution of track compositions. But the Caribbean sprint star cites other factors for the abundance of today's faster times. "They [today's sprinting elite] know more now because they're standing on the backs of everybody before them. And the fact that everybody now understands what the drive phase is about puts them faster in the second half of the 100 meters. And that's why the times are faster. It would be easy to say man is getting faster, but it is the technique that is better."
But, Ato, aren't the athletes bigger and stronger now? "I don't look at Bolt and say his body is different," offers Boldon with a pout. "You can look at Yohan Blake, but Maurice Greene was as big as him. Tyson Gay doesn't have muscles I didn't have. I don't see a big change in the bodies. Look at the medalist from the Olympics: Bolt, Blake, and Gatlin. Only one of them would be considered really muscular. And there has always been a muscular guy in each era."
Boldon doesn't hesitate to delicately and forthrightly address the issue of performance enhancing drugs. "There may have been more muscular guys in earlier eras, but there were more drug positives back then, too. Let's not sugar coat it. In my era of sprinters, Dwain Chambers was probably one of those guys you would look at and think, 'Geez, that guy has got muscles in places I could never even dream of.' But then it comes out that some of the guys had chemical help."
The former sprint star even notes generational differences in the pre-race attitudes of the world's sprint elite. "In my generation, we [the world-class sprinters] came out and we were pissed off at everybody. I am pissed off at you in the stands. And I'm pissed off at the starter because he has the gun and I want him to fire it when I move. And I am definitely pissed off at the other seven guys who are next to me,' an animated Boldon explains. "Now these guys come out and are congratulating each other: 'Hey, I hope you do well!' But because I know a lot of these guys off the track, I know that it is all B.S. They all hate each other the same way we used to; it's just that they express it differently." Now in full flight, Boldon rolls on. "So Usain Bolt comes out and he's smiling and he's doing his Usain Bolt pose. But he understands when that gun goes off, he's going to kill these guys. Same thing we did, except that we learned from the generation before - the Carl Lewis/Ben Johnson era - that angry was how you had to be." But suddenly Boldon slows to offer the lesson: "Maybe this generation has the right answer. We are taught as sprinters you are going to run faster if you relax. So how can say you run faster if you relax, and then come out with your face all stiff? Maybe Bolt, Blake, and Gay and company have the right idea and that is: Come out and just relax. You're probably going to run faster if you just relax."
Boldon - who honed his persuasive skills during his stint as the Opposition Senator in Trinidad & Tobago's United National Congress - is quick to explain why recent American sprint surprises should have been expected. "There are two races at these [USATF] championships that somehow are surprises, but they are not surprises to me. The first one: Brianna Rollins. I've been tweeting about it for weeks: 'Watch what's going to happen.' The responses were, 'You're getting carried away as usual. She's not going to run that fast. It's just the collegiate season.' You saw what happened there," smiles Boldon. But there's more. "Going into our broadcast, I said I thought Allyson Felix is a little vulnerable. And the person who can do it is this young lady Kimberlyn Duncan because she has already had a collegiate season," explains Boldon as he goes on to analyze Duncan's upset win over Felix in the 200. "Now, is Kimberlyn Duncan going to be able to do that to Allyson Felix a lot? I don't think so. You have to remember, Allyson is coming off the greatest and most taxing year of her career last year - with all those rounds and all those races in London. So - emotionally and physically - she has got to take a step back. She has a lot of sponsor commitments. She has been flying all over the world" he explains. "So now it's time to get ready for Russia," a serious Boldon offers. "And I know Allyson. She smiles, but she is extremely competitive. She did not like what happened out there [losing to Duncan], no matter what she said. So she goes back to practice with her training partner Dawn Harper - who watched Brianna Rollins run that time that she has never run. And they're going to be on fire in practice because these youngsters are not playing. And, believe me; they know they have to be ready."
Bolden's analysis offers helpful insights into the dynamics of change currently underway in the women's long sprint. Ah, but the real question remains: who will win the women's world championship 200 meter dash? Will it be the Olympic champion Allyson Felix? The new upstart Kimberlyn Duncan? The cagey Jamaican veteran Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce? Or perhaps someone else? If you are truly curious about how that much-anticipated race will turn out, you might want to ask Ato Boldon. He'll let you know. Dave Hunter