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.
Hughes speaks of his gruelling daily schedule – training from 5am to 7am, then going to the gym, with another two hours’ training in the evening: “Oh my days, training is tough for me. Now I’m doing longer repetitions and faster times than before. It’s unbelievably tough.”
In the past, he says, there were times when “I lay on the track feeling like giving up and coming back home, but watching Bolt and Blake persevering to finish the programme motivates me to do the same. They are my idols and have contributed to my growth over the time I have been training in Jamaica.”
While he is rightly proud of his achievements on the track – as is his doting mother Zarnalyn – he feels just the same about flying in his free time when he’s away from it.
“I want to be a pilot when I’ve finished athletics,” he says. “I went up in a plane in Jamaica, with a pilot, and I took over and landed the plane. It was a great, great feeling, a dream come true for me. I haven’t started pilot school, but I definitely, definitely want to fly.”
Hughes has had plenty of advice from Bolt and Blake, with whom he’s very friendly. Although Bolt is his idol, he says, “Maybe I can do something phenomenal one day and beat him. At some point I will have to say, well, he was my idol, but now he’s my rival. I want to make a name for myself out there.”
Besides being “ecstatic and grateful” to wear the GB vest, Hughes is also very pleased to get the tracksuit. “He thinks the design and colours are really cool. He fell in love with it when he competed against Britain for Anguilla in the Commonwealth Youth Games a few years ago,” says the author Richard Moore, who has spent plenty of time with Hughes and saw some of his best performances as a teenager in Jamaica while researching his recently published book, The Bolt Supremacy: Inside Jamaica’s Sprint Factory.
“At times he comes across as a wide-eyed teenager, but he’s actually very mature, an engaging character with a lot of charisma,” says Moore. “He showed me a recording of one of his best runs on his phone and talked me through it, pretty much stride by stride – what he was happy with, what he needed to improve. It was very impressive. Athletics desperately needs somebody like him. In terms of talking confidently in public, he’s way ahead of where Bolt was at that age.”
“I have always wanted to run against these guys,” says Hughes. “The target is the Olympics, but right now I am focusing on the World Championships.”