A tale of two gifted athletes

Aug 25, 2009 5:04 PM
Burnt Offerings by Stan Bergstein |

It is rare that we preach the same sermon two weeks in a row, but events across the pond require it.

Actually, it is a picture from Berlin, Germany, that requires it.

It was a remarkable shot, taken with a long lens news camera from high in the Berlin stadium where the world track and field championships were held last week. The photographer was Jens Buettner, who works for the European Pressphoto Agency.

The picture was so exceptional that the New York Times did something it rarely does. It ran the shot the entire width of the front page of its sports section, all six columns, to give it maximum impact.

The shot was the finish of the 200-meter final for men. Normally, such a picture shows five or six men stretched across the track, sprinting all out, chest-to-chest, to the finish. This one did that too, but then, across the width of that full-size page, there was a second figure, that of the winner, Usain Bolt of Jamaica, alone in splendor as he broke his own world record for the event, set last year in winning the 200 at the Beijing Olympics.

In a race normally decided by inches, Bolt was more than 15 feet ahead of the second runner. The picture showed his tremendous physique and mammoth stride, and it was followed, as usual, by theatrics on the part of Bolt.

Loud-mouthed trash talkers are common and annoying in pro football and basketball. But Bolt has refined it to a fine and charming art.

His post-race comments are enjoyable, full of pride and grace, but not of modesty. He knows how good he is, and he is not shy about flaunting it. Despite his huge physical frame – he is 6 feet 5 – he radiates personality and happy friendliness, as do somany of his Jamaican compatriots. A second Times picture, run with the huge first one, showed Bolt in his customary post race bow and arrow lightning bolt pose, right arm cocked and left extended full length, pointing skyward.

Ben Johnson, who held the world record in the 200 meters for 12 years before Bolt broke it last year, was doing television commentary in Berlin. "A ridiculous race," he said. "The bend is unbelievable. No one has ever run a bend like this, and probably never will."

That prognostication, like most prophesying eternal records, is not likely to be accurate. But his comment on no one running the bend into the straightaway the way Bolt ran it was on target. Bolt drew off by himself at that point, accelerating as if driven by an engine, and leaving a track full of the world’s best sprinters in his distant wake.

He donned a T-shirt reading Ich Bin Ein Berlino, a takeoff on John Kennedy’s historic statement in Berlin, except for the last letter. Berlino, instead of Berliner, was an inside joke, referring to the world championship’s mascot who stood behind him after the race, mimicking Bolt’s skyward lightning thrust to perfection.

When the U.S. sprinter Wallace Spearmon, who finished third behind Bolt and Alonso Edward of Panama, said in a post race interview that he planned to hang a picture of Bolt above his bed for inspiration, Bolt said, "I’ll be honored."

Another picture – far sadder – made the news during the week. It showed Plaxico Burress, star receiver of the New York Giants, leaving court facing two years in the slammer. As with most pro athletes in similar circumstances – Michael Vick comes quickly to mind – Burress was impeccably dressed.

Carrying an unlicensed gun in New York City is a crime, high on Mayor Bloomberg’s priority list, and a judge last week threw the book at Burress. He is 32, and after his 2008 heroics in catching a last minute winning touchdown pass that gave the Giants a Super Bowl win, he signed a 5-year, $35 million contract.

That’s a lot of money, even in the NFL, and it is likely that Burress’ contract carries a nullifying morals clause. If he is sentenced to two years next month, as expected, it will be 2011 before he gets out and gets on with his life and profession.

Question? Comment? E-mail me at: Stan Bergstein