Boldon the Beautiful? Trinidad Sprinter Ato Boldon

Denise Healy profiles a young Caribbean track star who has a good chance of a 100 meters medal at this year's Olympics

  • At the 1994 Common Wealth Games: Boldon moved up to fourth in the Commonwealth rankings. Photograph by Tony Duffy/ Allsport
  • Ato Boldon in action at the World Junior Games in Seoul in 1992, where he won both 100 and 200 metres. Photograph by Gary M. Prior/ Allsport

Adrenaline: a hormone secreted by the adrenal gland, causing excitement and stimulation.

“On your marks!”

Eight well-muscled and highly-trained sprinters genuflect in graceful slow motion; the familiar red-and-white of the track swings into extreme close-up.

Silence. Only the pounding in the heart and ears as adrenalin levels surge. The tension is palpable, the prize paramount.

The gun cracks and Ato Boldon disappears down the track in a blur. The concentration on his face is complete as he focuses on technique.

Vital to keep your head down for the first seven steps

Queens, New York, 1988. A young Ato Boldon is playing football at school when coach Joseph Tripiano notices his speed on the field and drafts him onto the track team. Ato is 15 years old. His parents separated four years earlier, and he came from Trinidad to the United States to live with his mother’s father.

A year later, Ato, no longer a mere raw recruit, qualifies for State competition, clocking times of 10.83 and 21.44 for the 100 and 200 metres in his first full season.

By the time his second season comes around, he has moved to California, and in State competition there has reached the top 15 in the 200 metres. He is in his final year at high school. College scholarship offers arrive from the University of Southern California at Berkeley, Michigan University, and the University of Florida. Encouraged by his mother, Ato chooses to go to Community College.

The adrenalin continues to race through his body. Surreal images flow dreamlike past his peripheral vision. The only sounds are his feet pounding and the rhythm of his controlled breathing. Five . . . six . . . seven . . . His head comes up. At 22 miles an hour he calculates another 40 metres before the inevitable. The natural deceleration of the human body.

1992. Ato Boldon becomes a part of the Trinidad and Tobago Olympic team. At 18 he is the youngest athlete ever to do so. At San José City College he clocks times of 10.22 and 20.40. At the Central America and Caribbean Games in Barcelona his times are 10.67 and 21.05.

In early 1993, at the World Junior Games in Seoul, Ato becomes the first and only person to hold the World 100 and 200 metres junior sprint titles at the same time.

People start to say he has the Midas touch. The international press dubs him Golden Boldon. “I hate that,” he says, shaking his head.

Ato’s father believes in the spiritual significance of names, especially African ones. Ato means brilliant. His younger brother was named Okera, In the likeness of God. “Our parents had high hopes for us,” Ato says.

The hills and plains and the quiet middle-class atmosphere of Grace Gardens in Santa Cruz, Trinidad, formed the canvas of Ato’s youth. His father, Guy, owned his own business, and his mother, Hope, was a public servant. “I was sheltered and very happy.” He studied at Newtown Boys’ Roman Catholic School in Port of Spain, then went on to Fatima College, a leading boys’ high school.

Lounging in a deck chair on the verandah in simply a pair of shorts, Ato is animated in his speech and supremely confident and relaxed. I breathe a secret sigh of relief at this composure: his reticence towards the media is no secret. His often serious face belies a sense of humour and a boyish playfulness that is not often revealed. It is easy to forget that Ato is only 21.

“Yuh in de bush now, so de mosquito and dem bigger,” he is warning me, in natural Trinidad dialect.

His slight American accent comes out when he uses the phone to speak to his coach John Smith, who is calling to make arrangements for Ato’s European tour in the summer. His father calls to confirm sponsorship from the Ministry of Sport. The money will help to defray some of his costs, and allow him to concentrate on winning medals.

It is unlikely that sponsorship will be a problem. Already he is wearing technologically advanced Nike shoes and is poised to sign a professional contract with them in 1996. But lack of sponsorship has concerned him in the past. “Regional sponsors are scared away by the lack of organisation they see in track and field. Nobody on the Trinidad and Tobago team has corporate sponsorship, and in the United States companies are generally uninterested in non-American athletes. At least, until the returns are obvious.”

1993 was a stagnant year for Boldon. He didn’t improve on his times; too old to compete in the junior games, he had to find his way in the senior division. But in 1994 his career began to move again when John Smith took him under his wing.

Smith had had a long string of successes, including Olympic medallists Danny Everett, Steve Lewis, Quincy Watts and Mike Marsh. He also trained Dennis Mitchell, who was ranked number one in the 100 metres in 1994, and Marie-Jose Perec, the Olympic and two-time World 400 metres medallist from Guadeloupe.

The new connection soon started to pay off. Although Ato lost to Trinidadian Neil da Silva in the 200 metres in Trinidad in 1994, he went on to set a new personal best time of 10.07 in the Commonwealth Games 100 metres in Canada. This placed him fourth in the Commonwealth rankings.

By 1994 Ato was noted as one of the top 15 sprinters in the world. By 1995 he was ranked among the four fastest men in the world. Track and Field Magazine, the Bible of athletics, cited him as the fastest man over 200 metres.

At the Pacific Athletic Coastal (PAC-10) meet in Arizona last May, he clocked 10.08 and 20.08, beating Michael Johnson’s 20.20 in Brazil two weeks earlier. In the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) meet in Tennessee, he clocked 20.24 but was disqualified in the 100 metres for “flinching”. “My feet never left the blocks and my hands never left the ground. The starter panicked. I have proof of it on tape,” says an angry Boldon.

Yet, as usual, he channelled his anger to think positively. “UCLA (where he is currently studying sociology) will host the PAC-10 next year, and I’ll have another chance then.”

Concentration turns into determination as Boldon hits the 50m mark. He begins to decelerate.

On June 24, 1995, Ato redeemed his reputation with a spectacular win over Barbadian Obadele Thompson, the junior world record holder, in the 100 metres during a showdown in Barbados. Jet-lagged and tired, on a short break from his university, Boldon ran 10.08 to Thompson’s 10.19. He also clocked less than 19 seconds in the relay. Elated, he told the press that he felt he was on his way to becoming the second man from the Caribbean to run 100 metres in under 10 seconds – the first was Ray Stewart of Jamaica, with 9.96 in the 1991 World Championship in Tokyo.

Boldon could also be on the verge of joining the elite sub-20 group of Carl Lewis, Leroy Burrell, Frankie Fredericks, Calvin Smith and Mike Marsh, given his times for the 200 metres at the PAC-10 finals.

“My success is about power,” says Boldon, jabbing his right index finger in the air for emphasis. “Power to encourage all those youngsters out there. Money is not the issue. I see every child in Trinidad and Tobago talking about me and about what they want to do in their future careers.”

Young people are one of the subjects that Ato is passionate about. He is concerned that the surface of the track in the National Stadium in Trinidad has got too hard over time. He wants to show that it is possible to mix academic work and athletics successfully, although he admits that juggling the two is gruelling.

His life at UCLA is like a schedule at a military academy. At 7 a.m. he wakes in the university dormitory and does sit-ups and press-ups for an hour. After breakfast, he is in class from 9 to 1 p.m. He hangs out with John Smith for about an hour after this, and then between 2 and 3 p.m. he’s back in his room checking phone messages and keeping in contact with his father back in Trinidad. He weight-trains from 3 to 6.30. After dinner, he attends mandatory tutoring for athletics students for an hour from 8 to 9 p.m. He catches up on his studies after that and is in bed around midnight. “I prefer it like that,” he says. “It means I’m disciplined.”

He relaxes when he visits home. “I love that new calypso beat,” he says, talking about rapso, the funky new alternative to traditional calypso that has been catching on with young people. He loves music and enjoys going to a club two or three times a year. Video games help him release stress. And yes, he has a girlfriend. And yes, the relationship is serious. “This girl has me talking marriage for the first time.” They met on the track, of course.

This doesn’t stop the girls from hounding him, though. Ato Boldon is cute, with a great physique and wonderful charm. But, for all the self-confidence that he exudes when he pounds down the track, the attention from the girls makes him uncomfortable, perhaps the only area where his supreme confidence fails him.

1995, summer. Ato pounds his way across the European circuit. On July 5 in Lausanne he breezes across the finish line in a personal best time for the 100 metres of 10.06; he equals the Trinidad and Tobago national record held by Hasely Crawford for 19 years, and shaves time off his own 10.07 in the previous year’s Commonwealth Games.

The following week in Stockholm, Sweden, he beats Canada’s Donovan Bailey, Nigeria’s Daniel Effion and Olapade Adeniken, and the USA’s John Drummond in the 100 metres, and Effiong, Jeff Williams and Dennis Mitchell in the 200 metres. In both races he finishes second — to Dennis Mitchell at 10.23 in the 100, and to Michael Johnson at 20.45 in the 200.

Boldon admits that he needs to run a tighter race. The ultimate test will be the World Championships in Sweden in August. World and Olympic champion Linford Christie is expected to be in the 100 metres line-up, along with Dennis Mitchell, Mike Marsh and Donovan Bailey. The USA’s Michael Johnson and Namibia’s Frankie Fredericks should be in the 200. Not only are the championships crucial from a competitive point of view, but success there will also ensure him much-needed sponsorship.

Summer 1995, Ullevi Stadium, Gothenburg, Sweden. Ato Boldon becomes the third fastest man in the world over 100 metres. At the fifth World Outdoor Track and Field Championships, he crosses the line at 10.03 seconds to win bronze. Photographers capture the determination on his face as he is flanked by Canadian gold and silver medallists Donovan Bailey (9.97) and Bruny Jurin (also 10.03).

The photos send a warning to challengers in Atlanta in the summer of 1996: beware. Ato has broken Carl Lewis’s 12-year record as the youngest medallist in this event at the World Championships — Carl was 22 when he won a medal in Helsinki.

Ato’s 10.03 also betters his own national record of 10.04, set the week before in the second round heats, and the 10.06 set by fellow Trinidadian Hasely Crawford when he won gold at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. For Trinidad and Tobago and the Caribbean, it is the first international medal in 19 years.

In the 200 metres, Ato pulls up with hamstring pain, and misses the chance of becoming a double medallist. But it has already been a summer of success.

The last 10 metres. All the top sprinters of the world have dropped back, except for one. The roar of the Atlanta crowd spurs him on. The tape calls to him, cameras flash. He closes his eyes and lets the adrenalin pump through his body, his breathing controlled, his technique razor-sharp. His arms raised in victory.

Could it be?

Ato remains wary about Atlanta, site of the 1996 summer Olympics. He recognises that Carl Lewis can be a crucial factor. He expects trouble from Frankie Fredericks and from Donovan Bailey. But everyone knows that this is a man on the rise, and in contention. He is young, he is focused, his times have been steadily improving.

Ato knows where he’s going. “It is important to me that at the end of my career as a track athlete I will be able to stand along with people like Donald Quarry and McDonald Bailey. I prefer to have the world record and have everybody hate me than to run 10.05 and be everybody’s best friend.”

Yet, despite the hype and everything that’s riding on a success in Atlanta, he can also say this: “Track is just for now and this time.” It is strange to hear that, but he feels he can walk away from this at any time. He wants to have a family — “some of the best track stars are married.” And he has the opportunity to work with film-maker John Singleton of Higher Learning and Poetic Justice fame.

But Ato’s supporters in Trinidad and Tobago and Caribbean people everywhere sincerely hope that Atlanta is on his mind, and that he makes many enemies in 1996.

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