OLYMPIAN, written by Dr Basil Ince, was published in 2011. The book examines, in detail, the history of Trinidad and Tobago’s Olympic participation. Included in OLYMPIAN are profiles of the country’s eight individual Olympic medallists, between 1948 and 2008. Between July 17 and August 9, excerpts from those eight profiles are being featured in the pages of the Trinidad Express. The profiles, in their entirety, are being published on the Express website (http://www.trinidadexpress.com/olympics).
Today, we feature sprinter Ato Boldon. He bagged two bronze medals at the 1996 Games in Atlanta, Georgia, USA, and then earned 100 metres silver and 200 metres bronze four years later, in Sydney, Australia.
Ato Boldon began running in the twentieth century and kept straight on into the twenty-first. He has joined Carl Lewis and Frankie Fredericks as athletes who have won the most individual medals in the sprints (Lewis 3 gold, 1 silver; Fredericks 4 silvers; Boldon 1 silver, 3 bronzes); he is also the Caribbean’s greatest individual medal winner in the sprints. His four medals in the sprints place him firmly in national and international track history. Until someone exceeds those four, Ato Boldon stands supreme in the medal arena in the Caribbean.
That Ato Boldon has excelled in the sprints inevitably invites comparison with other great Trinbago and West Indian sprinters, among them Michael Agostini, Mc Donald Bailey, Hasely Crawford, Herb Mc Kenley, Lennox Miller, Don Quarrie and Ed Roberts. Ato Boldon’s track resume reads: World Junior Championships (Seoul, 1992) 100m gold; 200m gold; World Championships (Goteborg, 1995) 100m bronze; Olympic Games (Atlanta, 1996) 100m bronze, 200m bronze; World Championships (Athens, 1997) 200m gold; Commonwealth Games (Kuala Lumpur, 1998) 100m gold; Olympic Games (Sydney, 2000) 100m silver, 200m bronze; World Championships, Edmonton, 2001, 4x100m relay silver.
These are the bare facts representing the assorted collection of hardware—nine medals in international meets at the highest level over a span of eight years attesting to his durability. Only an Olympic gold has eluded him. He has also equalled the nine medals won by Ed Roberts in major international competitions. Ato Boldon was also the first athlete to score a double in the dashes at the World Junior Championships; the only national double-medallist at consecutive Olympic Games; the youngest athlete to win a medal at the World Championships; Commonwealth Games holder in the 100m; and the only national to win gold at the World Championships.
Ato Jabari Boldon was born in Port-of-Spain on 30th December, 1973, the son of Hope and Guy Boldon. At Fatima College, Ato’s passion in sport was football and not track. In fact, on sports day he sought refuge in the stands when it was time for his event. In 1988 when at 14 he emigrated to the United States, running track was not on his agenda. When he arrived the Second Cold War was coming to an end, David Dinkins was about to become the first African American mayor of New York City, George Foreman was on the comeback trail and Cuba declined the invitation to participate in the Olympic Games in Seoul.
At Jamaica High School in Queens, Ato continued to play football, called soccer there. It was on the soccer field that Joe Trupiano, the school’s track coach, saw the swift-moving youngster and invited him to come out for track. Ato had never given track any serious thought. Trupiano had seen something that not even Ato was aware of. By the time Ato left for New York, oil prices had softened and oil was no longer the locomotive it was intended to be in Trinidad and Tobago’s economy. But if Trinidad & Tobago was on a downward spiral in the late eighties, Ato, under coach Trupiano, was beginning his climb to fame and fortune in the athletic world. In his first track season at Jamaica High, Ato ran times of 10.8, 21.4 and 48.5 for the I00m, 200m and the 400m respectively. These are fantastic times for a fifteen-year-old in his first season of track. The stop watch certainly confirmed what coach Trupiano had seen: Ato Boldon had quick muscle fibres. As if any other confirmation was needed, Ato finished third in the 200m at the New York State meet.
It was not long before that Ato had to make a decision on his next place of abode. His mother, Hope, was heading to Atlanta where she had accepted a job offer. Ato could go with her or move to California where he had relatives in San Jose. Ato factored his sprinting times into the decision-making process. California’s warm weather makes it the capital of outdoor track in the United States.
Although his track record continued to blossom at Piedmont Hills High School, Ato stuck religiously to his soccer. The reward came when he was named to the California All-State team as a forward. Two whirring souls in Ato, track and soccer, continued a struggle for supremacy. But one had to give way, and soccer did. His times of 10.57 (100m) and 21.07 (200m) in his senior year at Piedmont Hills High convinced him that he had a possible future in track. After all, his 21.07 had netted him third place in the California State Championships. Speed is an asset in soccer, especially for a forward. But hard tackles can be hazardous to the forward’s health, especially if the forward is an aspiring track man. And so it was that Ato’s senior year in high school became his last year in organised soccer. In 1992 Ato would emerge as Ato Boldon, track man.
The validation of his choice of track over soccer was not long in coming. He enrolled at San Jose Community College where he continued his ascent in the track world. He achieved what no other Junior athlete had done when he scored a double at the World Junior Championships in Seoul. In his own words, “that double put me on the map.” By the end of the year his 100m time was down to 10.22. He also completed a less celebrated double at the CAC Junior Championships in Honduras.
With the World Junior Championships under his belt, Ato turned his eyes towards the pinnacle in the track world, the Olympic Games, and the Games in Barcelona proved to be a watershed in his career. At Barcelona Ato did not emerge from the preliminaries. He had been weakened from a virus at the CAC Games in Honduras. Good even at self-evaluation, he was to say: “Barcelona let me know that I wasn’t as good as I thought.” Notwithstanding that fact, Ato represented Trinidad and Tobago at the Olympics for the first time and continued.
Although Ato had cut down his time to 10.22, he did not have the Olympics as his top priority. As he said, “I knew the Olympics were coming up, but I didn’t feel I was ready. Besides, I thought there had to be a lot of guys in Trinidad running faster than me.” But Bert Bonanno, athletic director at SJCC, doubted it. He liked the fact that Ato was down to 10.22 and believed that he had another potential Olympic 100m winner from Trinidad and Tobago. Bonanno was the coach of Maillard Hampton, silver medallist in the 200m at Montreal. An American coach had discovered Ato in New York and now another American coach would influence his decision to compete at the Games under the Trinidad & Tobago flag.
When Ato made the Trinbago team for the Games in Barcelona, the die was cast. Henceforth he would be representing Trinidad and Tobago in Olympic competition. In 1992 it was a practical decision to run for Trinidad and Tobago. It would have been difficult for the budding star to make the US team. To have represented the United States in Atlanta, Ato would have had to make that decision in 1993, three years before the Games, to fulfill the Olympic Charter requirements for a change of representation. In 1993 Ato was running 10.22 and 20.5 and it would have been premature for him to make a representational change, therefore he did not. Furthermore, “I was calculating. I knew the United States was always going to get about 30 medals in track and field every year, I wanted to represent the country I was from. I took a lot of flak about it. I was living in the United States and competing for Trinidad and Tobago. I saw myself winning in red, white, and black, not red, white and blue. Trinidad and Tobago has fewer chances.”
The decision to run for his native land could not have been an easy one. He had actually contemplated changing his citizenship. He attended high school in the United States from age 14 and was re-socialised in that country. Other athletes had gone as foreign students on American campuses and the question of representing the United States was not an option. Attempting to make the United States team in the sprints, short and long, is a strong disincentive for any national so inclined. The US trials in these events are human barriers.
Ato’s next stop in his tertiary education was at UCLA. He was not the only national to go from a Community or Junior College to a university. Joe Coombs, for example, had attended Essex Community College in New Jersey before repairing to the University of Alabama. In the United States, Community Colleges are two-year institutions for some students who wish to terminate their education at that level. Others proceed to a four-year college, as Ato did. The track coach at UCLA was John Smith, a former world record-holder in the 400m and a serious gold-medal contender in that event in Munich in 1972. Fate intervened when Smith broke down with muscle problems. Since then he has turned his experience and talent to coaching.
In the years after Barcelona, Ato continued to make incremental improvements, running 10.23 in 1993 and 10.07 in 1994. He collected his first NCAA title in 1995 when he won the 200m and allowed a year to elapse before returning to win the 100m in a record 9.92 seconds. This fast time confirmed that he was a world-class sprinter. Sandwiched between these NCAA titles was a bronze medal in the 100m at the World Championships in 1995 when, at 21, he became the youngest athlete to win a medal in that event. His quick times and his temperament marked him as a formidable contender in both sprints for the Games in Atlanta.
In 1992 Boldon had not yet matured as a top 100m sprinter; a great junior for that competition, but not for the seniors. That all changed four years later. He was a serious contender having sped 9.92 at the NCAA and was confident going into the 100m final in Atlanta. After all, he had run 9.95 and 9.93 in previous rounds. But in the final Donovan Bailey and Frankie Fredericks finished ahead of him. A series of false starts and Linford Christie may have put him off, but his 9.90 was faster than he had ever run up to that time. His bronze marked the first time that a Trinbago national had stood on the rostrum for that event since Hasely Crawford twenty years earlier.
Ato had nothing to lose in the 200m which he considered his better race. With a bronze already in the bag, he “was light, lean, and ready.” If Ato made any error in the 200m, it was that he had expended too much energy in the semi-final running a swifter time than was necessary. It was a no contest race for Michael Johnson who had earlier broken the world record at the US trials. Fredericks who ran second, seemed to be in another race despite his 19.68 run, while Ato ran faster than he had ever run the distance and was timed in 19.80. On hearing Johnson’s time of 19.32, Ato bowed in homage and remarked that Johnson’s time “…sounds like my dad’s birthday.” Ato’s double bronze in the sprints validated him as one of the top sprinters of his time. His medals indicated that “I could be a force for a number of years.” Ato, at 22, had joined the elite group of Caribbean sprinters who were finalists in both sprints at the same Olympics—McDonald Bailey, Mike Agostini, Silvio Leonard, Don Quarrie, and Hasely Crawford. Only Ato and Quarrie mounted the rostrum in both sprints.
Most top sprinters have two good shots to medal at the Olympic Games. Ato, therefore, would be at his peak at Sydney in 2000. In Atlanta he proved that he was among the world’s elite sprinters. The challenge for him was to improve his Atlanta showing and keep himself in contention for Sydney. And so 1997 was a vintage year for him. He collected his first gold at the World Championships in the 200m. Just prior to those Championships he had run an incredible double at Stuttgart, 9.90 and 19.77 within 45 minutes. In the following year he flew down to the Commonwealth Games at Kuala Lumpur and set a new record, duplicating Mike Agostini’s gold in 1958. Ato continued to run fast times in 1999, running 9.86 twice before sustaining a serious muscle injury. It forced him to miss the Championships in Seville. This setback, however, opened a new door for him as a broadcaster, a capacity in which he has received tremendous praise.
In September, 1996, Maurice Greene, dissatisfied with his running career, left the Kansas cornfields and drove to Los Angeles to place his future in the hands of John Smith. After finishing in second place at the US nationals in 1995, Greene suffered an injury and had failed to make the American Olympic team in 1996. Ato was in his senior year at UCLA but he was also a member of Smith’s camp, Handling Speed Intelligently (HSI). Both sprinters in the same camp became friends and training partners. At the outset Ato was no doubt the senior partner in the firm of Boldon and Greene. After a meet in 1997 where Ato had recorded a 9.89 and Greene a 10.15 in a 100m, Ato was to remark to Smith: “John, I need to teach him. Do you mind if I bring him over and show him the film and everything and the things he needs to do?” Greene was a quick learner, and later that year he ran 9.96 and 9.80. The battle was on.
Maurice was a double world champion in 1999 while an injured Ato did commentaries for the BBC. Greene’s consistency in 1999 made it obvious that he was the man to beat. Inevitably the relationship devolved and Ato was to say: “There will be no tag-teaming this year. It’s every man for himself.” On the other hand, Greene was determined to bring back the 100m crown to the United States. Ato again indicated his sentiments on his training with his partner, now the main contender for the Olympic crown in Sydney: “I will continue to be a cat burglar. I won’t smash a front window. I’ll enter through the back so I won’t be noticed.”
Olympic Year 2000 was difficult for Ato. He could not follow his usual pattern of workouts, and his layoff from the previous season, because of an injury, literally threw him off track. Getting back in shape was his challenge. What was he to do on resumption of training? Should he speed up his workouts or continue on the same path as in previous years? Keen not to allow Olympic Year to bypass him, he accelerated his training: “I’m using the indoor season to sharpen up. If I wait until the outdoors I’ll be a year out of competition. The indoor 60’s I’ll be running is a means to an end.” But during the outdoor season, he never achieved the quick times he usually did. He continued the pedestrian times (compared to his past performances) in August. This sort of form carried into the Games. His times of 10.04, 10.11, 10.13 and 9.99 told the story. Compare these with his times at Atlanta four years earlier—10.06, 9.95, 9.93 and 9.90. When he did 9.95 in Atlanta, it was the fastest-ever quarter-final mark, as was his 9.93, the fastest-ever qualifying time in a preliminary. Granted that the Atlanta track may have been faster, the difference is obvious. An athlete knows his body. Ato knew what was going on hence his statement afterwards: “I felt with what was going on this year, I was happy to net the silver.”
John Smith as coach had two charges in the 100m final, Maurice Greene and Ato Boldon. This was a win-win situation for Smith. In 2000, Ato did not get gold in the 200m which, incidentally, was not a difficult field. In his interview with NBC following the 100m, he confessed: “I had to deal with not winning the 100m, which was fine. I felt with what I was doing this year, I was happy to net silver. This has been a tough year. I have not rattled off 9.8s like I used to. I thought anything I got in the I00m was good with me. The 200m is mine to lose.”
Funny and articulate, the media liked Ato. In his second race of the season in 1996, he had run 9.93 and gave us the sound bite: “I don’t feel like I’ve gone to the well.” In the following year he opened up with a 9.89, “the fastest legal clocking in May,” and for the third year in succession, he opened up with a windy 9.89. The quote that “the 200m is mine to lose” was made on the form of previous years, not the form of 2000. Again, like the100m, the times tell the story. The times of the preliminaries were 20.52, 20.28, 20.20 and 20.20 in the final. His Atlanta times were 20.26, 20.25, 20.05 and the final, 19.80.
Ato had every opportunity to win the 200m but his body did not allow him to do so. “I knew that I was in trouble because I was tired from the rounds of the 100m and I knew it would be a struggle for me to win on that night,” he admitted afterwards. In the race, he got an excellent start, just as in the 100m. His reaction time at the pistol was .163, identical to that of the 100m. His reaction time was faster than anyone in both races and an in-form Ato would have walked over that field in lane 8.
As things turned out, the judges had problems separating him and Obadele Thompson, the fourth place finisher, with whom he had the identical time. Luck prevented Ato from gold in the 200m. Or rather, bad luck did. In form in previous years, his lengthy lay-off prior to Olympic year was the culprit. Generally, no one knows what to do after such a layoff, because it is usually a first-time experience. Responding in a David Robson interview regarding his greatest disappointment in sport, he identified the Sydney 200m, adding that he was unable to run a better 200m after taking second in the 100m, “because a sub 20, which I’ve done quite a bit, would have won the gold that night.” Nevertheless, his third place finish put him in a category where no Caribbean sprinter has ever been—in the hallowed company of Carl Lewis and Frankie Fredericks, the only winners of four individual Olympic medals in the sprints.
After years of intensive training and performing at top level, Ato’s brilliant career was coming to an end. His last performance on a big stage came at the World Championships in Edmonton, Canada, where he finished fourth in the 100m and ran a leg on the 4x100m relay team which finished in third place. Ato was later moved to the medal column when Tim Montgomery was disqualified for a drug infraction, and the relay team’s bronze was upgraded to silver.
Before the upgrading, the relay medal appeared to be just another addition of hardware for Ato. It was not. The senior sprinter exulted that it was the greatest moment of his career. He was proud to lead the young national team (Marc Burns, Jacey Harper, and Darrel Brown) to its first sprint relay in World or Olympic competition. Trinidad and Tobago has always had terrific sprinters but could never put forward a foursome to mount the rostrum. Ato may have very well started something because Trinidad and Tobago has since established itself among the premier sprint teams in the world. Their silver medals at the Olympics in Beijing and the World Championships in Berlin are solid illustrations.
Injuries hastened his decline and a car crash in July 2002 ensured that he would be unable to defend his Commonwealth title in Manchester. Referring to the accident, he admitted: “It was the end of my career, for all intents and purposes.” In 2003, returning to competition after the accident, Ato journeyed to Paris where he was eliminated in the semi-final of the World Championships in the 100m. He bade farewell to international competition at Athens in 2004.
Thus ended one of the more illustrious careers among Caribbean athletes. Ato had been discovered by chance on a soccer field and grasped the opportunity to become one of the world’s leading sprinters. Once he got in the swing of sprinting, he set his goals “to carry on the torch in the sprints for my country and my region, compete cleanly, and to the best of my abilities, and to enjoy something I have a huge passion for—track and field.” Ato believes he achieved those goals and has moved on. He concurs with those who think that an Olympic gold would have been a fitting end to his career, but he let it be known that track would not define him as a person nor would it change anything about his life after track.
Track, however, has provided him the opportunity to move into the post track phase of his life. While in Seville in 1999 and unable to run at the World Championships because of injury, the BBC hired him to do some commentary and analysis for the Championships. That went well and the BBC invited him again in the following year to work at the US trials in Sacramento. The BBC had opened a door and Ato stepped in. Ato enjoyed the experience immensely. The injured runner, whose parents wanted him to become a priest or a lawyer, immediately thought that he had a future in broadcasting. The BBC gigs later led to assignments with CBS and NBC making him a virtual fixture on American television commenting on track meets.
Reaction to his work has been uniformly laudatory in major newspapers such as the New York Times, the LA Times, the Dallas Morning News and USA Today. A writer in the Sports Business Journal penned: “The reason Boldon is a star at NBC is the passion for the sport that he brings to his broadcasting. His Caribbean/British accent, his colourful description of the races and the competitors make him entertaining…Bottom line, Boldon makes watching track events fun, which is more than NBC can ask for…”
Boldon praises the BBC for giving him his breakthrough but does not press his luck. He knows that a gifted athlete has to work hard, a quality also necessary for someone in broadcasting and he has done his homework. He knows what goes into the making of a good analyst:
“[S/he] must have a balance to entertain someone who knows everything about the sport and educate someone who knows nothing about the sport. I can’t go on TV, especially during the Olympics, and start getting very technical, but I can’t dumb down so much to people who know the sport.”
Ato’s post-track phase led him to flying and he obtained his private pilot’s licence in August 2005 after devoting four years to training. He describes this as “one of the best things I ever did.” Fuelled by his new passion, he flies frequently between Van Nuys airport in California and Florida. Airborne with his high knee lift when running, Ato is truly airborne now. In early 2006, he was named an Opposition senator in the Trinidad and Tobago parliament. But he resigned 14 months later, because he objected to the leader’s style. He has retired from competitive running, but track is still a part of his life. He coaches the Saudi Arabian team, performing those duties in both Saudi Arabia and in Florida. He has also found time to address students in public schools.
Broadcasting, flying, coaching, motivating youth, and involvement in politics are not the only things that Ato does well. He also designs web sites. And his own web design has won several awards. The magnet of soccer also pulled Ato’s interests into another direction—that of writer, producer director of a 73-minute DVD: Once in a lifetime: Boldon in Bahrain. This materialised when the Soca Warriors journeyed to the small country in the Middle East and became the smallest country to qualify for the FIFA World Cup held in Germany in 2006.
Well-positioned to motivate youth to widen their horizons, he is also admirably qualified to assist future medal aspirants in track and field. His constant theme has been the value of hard work even if one possessed the right genes. The message is that many are gifted but it is hard work that facilitates the emergence of a champion. During his competitive days, Boldon was particularly careful about his diet but refrained from recommending it since one diet does not fit all. However, he avoided white refined sugar, sodas, and fried foods. Eating late was off the table.
Budding sprinters would be interested in the workouts which produced terrific times such as 9.86 and 19.77. Once upon a time, sprinters avoided lifting weights. The belief then was that a muscled-up body slowed down the athlete. That thinking has been passé for some time. Accordingly, Ato approached sprinting on two tracks—in the gym and on the track. He visited both venues four times a week. The focus of his track work was repeats 300s and 200s, and as sharpening time approached, 60s. Repeats are the ingredients that prepare the sprinter for four gruelling rounds of high quality sprinting at the Olympic level. Ato never ran 400m in practice since he thought it unnecessary for short-distance sprinters. A budding sprinter replicating Ato’s workouts may be sorely disappointed if s/he does not achieve Ato’s results. Ditto for the 400m-800m runner who duplicates Alberto Juantorena’s programme that led to his double gold in Montreal. Ato explains the differing outcomes in what he calls mind-set or mental toughness. Genes also enter the picture.
The use of drugs in track and field began in the 1970s and became more prominent after the Ben Johnson incident in 1988. Unfortunately, the drug suspicion lurks for the fastest runners because the prominent few who were caught swore on the cross that they had never touched the stuff. As a result, the reputations of innocents remain under a cloud. Ato is on target when he observes: “You cannot be the second fastest man on earth…and not become the focus of suspicion…” Things are at that stage now. When Usain Bolt ran his breathtaking 9.69 everyone applauded and then held his (her) breath, hoping that there would be no announcement of the use of a performance enhancing substance. It’s easy for this writer to say that Ato should move on especially if he has a clear conscience because he will never be able to control what other people think or say. He should just continue on the same linear path that he has followed as broadcaster, web designer, pilot, motivator, and writer, producer, and director of DVDs. He will discover where his talents take him.
In whichever direction the chapters of Ato Boldon’s life unfold, the facts are that: he is the only quadruple Olympic medallist from the Caribbean who has won his medals in individual sprint events; he is a gold medallist at the World Championships; the Commonwealth Games record-holder in the 100m; the youngest ever medallist in a World Championship 100m at 21; one of the few athletes to win Junior and Senior World Championships; Sportsman of the Year on six occasions; and a perennial achiever of sub-10 100m. For his outstanding performances on the track, a stadium has been named in his honour, the Ato Boldon Stadium in Couva.
Boldon, who has packed so much into his life in a short space of time, is also a boxing enthusiast. Needless to say, he has become a public figure, immortalised in a Trinidad and Tobago calypso “Ato Fever.” In addition to his parents Guy and Hope Boldon, Ato has a brother, Okera. Ato is the proud father of two daughters from his marriage which ended in divorce in 2005. All Trinbagonians hail one of the best and most talented sprinters. Well done, Ato.
On Thursday (August 2), we feature Richard Thompson.