All the talk about Usain Bolt this year has been of an athlete in decline, a superstar who has lost his mojo. On current form the 100m and 200m world record holder is no longer the fastest man in the world.
But Bolt did show signs in his 100m victory at the Anniversary Games in London in July that he’s on his way back to his best. He could yet retain both his titles at the World Championships in Beijing, which start on Saturday, the day after his 29th birthday. His millions of fans will hope he does, along with the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) – and not just because the favourite to beat Bolt at both distances is the American Justin Gatlin, who has twice been banned for drugs violations.
Bolt at his best has star quality. A few weeks ago Sebastian Coe, elected as the IAAF’s new president on 19 August, put into perspective just how important Bolt is: “He has captured the imagination like no sporting figure since Muhammad Ali in the 1970s.”
But whatever happens in Beijing, athletics needs new stars. Gatlin, more pariah than hero, is 33 and won’t be around much longer. Among the fastest of the young pretenders is a 200m sprinter who is flying, both on and off the track.
Zharnel Hughes, aged 20, has put in a string of impressive performances, including a second place behind Bolt in the Diamond League in New York, victories in Lausanne and London, and a 200m national title. Remarkably, that title wasn’t won in Jamaica, where he lives and trains, or Anguilla, where he was born and raised, but at July’s British Championships.
Anguilla, sitting between the British Virgin Islands and Antigua in the Caribbean, is a British overseas territory, just like Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands. It competes at the Commonwealth Games, though no Anguillan has ever won a medal, but isn’t recognised at the Olympics. As Anguillans hold British passports, the “new Usain Bolt”, as Hughes is known, was able to apply to compete for Britain and Northern Ireland.
Hughes is a confident and expressive young man whose charisma, should he make it to the top, will be invaluable to his chosen sport.
“My teachers, peers and family have always encouraged me to do the best I can, and I want to inspire young people, set an example and influence them to do positive things,” he said in a speech at his old school in Anguilla. “I’m just trying to have a happy life. I keep everything simple – I love being the person that I am.”
Hughes is confident of winning a World Championship medal. “My main aim is to get to the final, then we’ll see what happens,” he tells Radio Times from his hotel room in Beijing, which he shares with Delano Williams, another Caribbean Briton based in Jamaica. “But I am in good shape, I’m feeling good and I believe I can win a medal. So does my coach.”
He first tried athletics at primary school in Anguilla, aged ten, and as he grew and grew, so did his performances. He stands 6ft 3in, two inches shorter than Bolt, but taller than most of his rivals. A couple of weeks before Bolt won three sprint golds at the London 2012 Olympics, Hughes won a scholarship to the IAAF High Performance Training Centre in Jamaica, where he has the same chief coach as Bolt and Yohan Blake.