YOHAN BLAKE: The Beast Who Could Beat Usain Bolt In London

yohan blake olympics runner

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

On the morning of Monday 6 October 2008, so the story goes, Yohan Blake packed his bags and left Danny Hawthorne’s house for the last time. It was not an easy thing to do. Blake spent three years living with Hawthorne, his mentor and sports coach from coach. In that time they had won a lot of medals and broken a lot of records together.Blake was on the brink of becoming a great sprinter, and Hawthorne was dreaming of making the step with him. He talked to the local press about how he was considering quitting his job at the school to become Blake’s full time coach on the international circuit. And then Blake walked out.

The timing was not accidental. Just six weeks earlier Usain Bolt had won the sprint double at the Beijing Olympics, both in world record times.

“That,” Blake thought, “is what I want.”

“I don’t know anything,” the hurt Hawthorne told the press at the time. “Nobody has said anything to me.” He would, eventually, get a call from Blake’s parents, Veda and Shirley, explaining exactly where their son had gone. He left Hawthorne to join Bolt’s training group at the Racers Track Club in Kingston. He did what he believed he needed to do, despite what it cost.

Not long after that, early in 2009, Bolt gave an interview to Television Jamaica’s Morning Time show. The host asked him if there were any athletes he saw as a potential threat. Bolt thought about it, and answered. “Blake is the man. He’s very, very determined. He works very hard and in the future, he’ll be very good because you can tell that he really wants it.” Bolt soon took to calling Blake “The Beast”.

“You know why Usain calls me ‘The Beast’?” Blake said. “Because when you’re sleeping, I’m working, I’m toiling through the night. It’s what great men do.”

When Blake was growing up in Bogue Hill he went by another nickname – Claude. That was what his family always called him. Blake is the sixth of Veda and Shirley’s seven children. “I wasn’t born with a golden spoon in my mouth,” Blake said. “It was a really tough life. So many times, we had no money to even get to school. I’d have to find empty beer bottles to sell and spent hours carrying water on my head because we had no water at home. It gave me strength, which helps me today.”

Back then Blake was more interested in playing cricket than he was in anything else. “As a boy, I’d rather have played for the West Indies than go to the Olympics,” he said. “It was my dream. When I was starting out at 12, I didn’t go to school a lot so I was putting up a stick in the yard and bowling at it.” He still plays 20-over cricket in the St Catherine League on Sundays. Bolt also fancies himself as a quick bowler, and the two have a rivalry there as well. “Usain thinks he’s much better than me but even though he gets more bounce and pace because he is really tall, I’m better. I’m pretty quick, fast through the air.”

The school that Blake was skiving from was Green Park All-Age, in Clarendon. The principal was a man named O’Neil Ankle, who described himself as “a tough task master”. But he was also quick to reward achievement in his pupils. He had a “brag board” put up to record their achievements, and would reward them with buttons that said “World Changer”. He watched Blake play cricket, and reckoned that he could see the makings of a sprinter in the way the boy ran to bowl.

Ankle sent Blake off to Hawthorne at St Jago high, which had a reputation as a great school for athletes. “O’Neil told me that he saw something special in him,” Hawthorne remembers. “He thought that St Jago was the right place for him to nurture that talent.” It was only then, Shirley Blake remembers, that her boy began to show any interest in running. The family had moved down to a village called Bullet Tree. “He had this friend,” Shirley says, “and the two of them would run from Bullet Tree to Old Harbour.”

Hawthorne recalls that Blake was “not impressive at the all-age championships.” But the coach was impressed with the kid’s dedication. “He took training very seriously, and only missed it because of reasons beyond his control.” That too was a debt to his parents. “I faced a lot of obstacles growing up, I see where my parent suffered to bring me here,” Blake said when he was 16. “It would really hurt me if I waste my time when I know I have the potential to put myself in a good position to help them in the future.”

Soon Blake’s talent began to show through. He lost a few major races because of his nerves, notably at the World Junior Championships in 2006 and 2008. But his times continued to improve. In 2005 he set a personal best of 10.56sec in the 100m. The next year he lowered it to 10.33. Then, in the heats of the Carifta Games in 2007, he broke Raymond Stewart’s Jamaican Junior 100m record of 10.19. He shaved a single hundredth of a second off a mark that had stood for 28 years, that had been too quick for both Bolt and Asafa Powell at the same age. In the final he went quicker still, running 10.11.

That success threw Blake. When he arrived at Racers Track Club he was, according to the coach, Glen Mills, in a mess. “The first thing when we got him, he had a back and a hamstring problem that we had to attend to in his first year.” Mills thought Blake had been scarred by an unexpected defeat at the high school championships in 2008. “When he started in his first meet, he froze, the gun fired and he didn’t run, then the next time he picked out. So we had to be patient with him and work on him both mentally and physically. We corrected his back, strengthened his hamstrings and then once that was in place, we started to work on him biomechanically.”

Mills identified the problems Hawthorne had not been able to see. “His body was sitting down and arm movement wasn’t going far back enough, which is where acceleration takes place,” Mills explained. “Over the years, we worked incrementally on those things.” Soon Blake started to fly. In May 2009, he became the youngest man ever to run under 10 seconds, when clocked 9.93 in Paris. The next month, however, his career took its first serious knock when he tested positive for methylxanthine.

The stimulant was not on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s prohibited drugs list at the time, but was added to it shortly afterwards. Blake was cleared of any wrongdoing but Jamaica’s anti-doping commission insisted he serve a three-month ban regardless. That positive test will always provide evidence for the sceptics, but the circumstances were far from black and white. Several athletes around the world tested positive for methylxanthine at the time, including the South African rugby players Bjorn Basson and Chiliboy Ralepelle. It was a common ingredient in both nutritional supplements and nasal sprays, though it was often listed under a different name.

Blake says that he unknowingly ingested it while using an energy supplement. The positive test meant he missed the 2009 world championships in Berlin, when he would have been part of the 4x100m relay team.

He made up for that in 2011, when he won the world 100m title in Daegu after Bolt was disqualified. No one knows why Bolt false-started, but many suspect it was because he was spooked by Blake’s speed. Blake made an even bigger statement in Brussels a few weeks later, when he ran the second-fastest 200m in history, 19.26. Bolt was there to see that one too, and he slapped his hand over his mouth in shock when he saw the time.

Three years ago, when Bolt gave that TV interview praising his young partner, no one paid him much mind. Now the two have stopped taking training sessions together. Their rivalry is too intense. Blake is the world 100m champion. He is ranked No1 in the world this year at both the 100m and the 200m, and most tellingly of all, he has beaten Bolt in both events at the Jamaican trials.

Blake is not on Bolt’s shoulder any more. He is right up there with him, matching him stride for stride.

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