Arthur Wint: long before Bolt | On this day

Usain Bolt may be Jamaica’s most famous Olympic medallist — but he was far from the first. James Ferguson looks back at the life of Arthur Wint and his extraordinary achievements both on and off the track

  • Illustration by Rohan Mitchell
  • Jamaican sprint champion Arthur Wint in his heyday. OsmanPhotos.com / Alamy Stock Photo

You’d have to be the sole inhabitant of the remotest of desert islands to have escaped the media hyperbole surrounding the Jamaican athlete Usain Bolt. His celebrity arguably reached its peak at the London Olympic Games in 2012 (where he won three gold medals), but by then he’d already set world records by finishing the 100 metres in 9.58 seconds and the 200 metres in 19.19 seconds back in 2009. The holder of eight Olympic golds over three successive Games, “Lightning Bolt” is widely considered the greatest sprinter in the sport’s history, capable of reaching a speed of 27.44 miles per hour.

Even after his retirement in 2017, this most charismatic of athletes has remained firmly in the celebrity spotlight, pictured with glamorous models, DJing at the recent Commonwealth Games in Australia, and captaining a World XI football team against England in a Soccer Aid charity game in June. There are plans afoot to open fifteen Bolt-themed Tracks & Records restaurants across Britain, while fans can avail themselves of t-shirts, running shoes, and backpacks at the Usain Bolt Official Store. Never one to shun publicity, he has trademarked his famous lightning bolt pose and made public his ambition of playing for Manchester United. And, needless to say, rumours of an impending return from retirement continue to keep Bolt in the public eye.

Brash and ebullient, Usain Bolt straddles sport and showbiz, a contemporary cultural icon who has done much to magnify the positive side of athletics when it has been tainted by doping allegations. He has also boosted the international profile of Jamaica, now rightly perceived as punching well above its weight in athletics, with a new generation inspired by Bolt’s prowess.

But he in turn had a model to emulate, even though his unassuming precursor could hardly have been more different from Bolt’s glitzy persona. And this Jamaican sprinter was the first athlete from the island ever to win an Olympic gold medal, an achievement that took place at Wembley seventy years ago, on 5 August, 1948. His name was Arthur Wint, and his time of 46.2 seconds in the 400 metres final equalled the world record (and narrowly beat fellow Jamaican Herb McKenley, who took the silver). Fourteen years before Jamaican independence, Wint collected his gold medal to the sound of “God Save the King”.

A trailblazing athlete, Wint was also much more: an air force pilot during the Second World War, a medical doctor, and a diplomat on behalf of independent Jamaica. He was born on 25 May, 1920, in Manchester Parish, and educated at Calabar and Excelsior High Schools in Kingston, where he excelled at sprinting as well as high and long jump, winning the accolade of Jamaica Boy Athlete of the Year in 1937. The following year, he won a gold medal in the 800 metres at the Central American Games in Panama. Unusually tall at six feet four inches, his height together with his modest demeanour won him the nickname of the “Gentle Giant”.

Wint wanted to become a doctor, but the outbreak of war put his career on hold, and in 1942 he and his brothers Lloyd and Douglas joined the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan in Canada. Two years later he “won his wings,” and saw active service in Britain, flying Spitfires. In 1947, Flying Officer Wint left the RAF, having won a scholarship to study medicine at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London. It was at the end of his first year there that the capital was to host the first post-war Summer Olympics.

 

Arthur Wint is primarily remembered for his 400 metres gold, but he and his fellow Jamaicans — a couple of whom had endured a twenty-four-day journey to the UK on a banana boat — came remarkably close to doubling that record. Wint came second in the 800 metres and only a pulled muscle prevented him from catching his American opponent in the last leg of the 4 x 400 metres relay. The Jamaicans’ disappointment lasted just under four years. On 27 July, 1952, Wint, McKenley, George Rhodon, and Les Laing took the 4 x 400 gold medal at the Helsinki Olympics, in a world record time of three minutes, 3.9 seconds. Wint, meanwhile, also won a silver in the 800 metres, and McKenley came second in the 100- and 400-metre events.

The following year, Wint both qualified as a doctor and ran his last competitive race, returning once more to Wembley. His career in athletics was over, commemorated with an MBE from Queen Elizabeth II in 1954, but his career as a doctor in Jamaica was only just beginning. From 1955 to 1974 he worked as the only doctor in rural Hanover Parish, the smallest on the island, often offering free care to the poorest. Known to Prime Minister Michael Manley since 1941 (when Wint was defended in court by Manley’s father after a tragic accident, described by Valerie Wint in her recent biography The Longer Run), he was appointed Jamaican High Commissioner in London in 1974, serving for four years. 

Returning to Jamaica, Wint worked at Linstead Hospital as senior medical officer until retiring in 1985. He died in Kingston on 19 October, 1992 — fittingly, that year’s Heroes Day. His memory has been honoured with many awards, a blue plaque in London, and the naming of Arthur Wint Drive in Kingston, the long thoroughfare that passes the National Stadium and the city’s other main sporting facilities.

In a 2003 interview, a young schoolboy named Usain Bolt cited Wint as an inspiration, but perhaps the most eloquent testament to his stature came from his friend Michael Manley:

The single most important element to the influence of Arthur on my generation was the sense of Jamaica, the Caribbean, as a great centre of potential excellence. We were, comparatively speaking, a tiny part of the world with a very small population, but here we were producing people who were running world records, Olympic records, who were taking on the best at the highest level and winning.

These words are as applicable today as then, as many young Jamaican athletes — galvanised by the success of Usain Bolt, Asafa Powell, and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce — look set to continue in a winning tradition founded seventy years ago.