White Lightning on track

Athletics

FRENCH STAR: Christophe Lemaitre is the first white sprinter to go under  the 10-second barrier in the 100 metres.

It was a pleasant, clement Saturday afternoon, and the Parisians were crowding the streets and the quays, embracing their fair city and the November sunshine on high heels and hired bicycles.

Riding a bus down the Boulevard Saint-Germain to meet Christophe Lemaitre, it occurred to me that many of those gathered now could be gathered in the future to watch on screens large and small as Lemaitre competes in the London Olympics next summer.

 Lemaitre is the fastest Frenchman in history, something he puts much more stock in than being the fastest white man in history.

He became a star at home by winning three gold medals at the European championships last year, which was all the more inspiring because it came on the heels of the French soccer team’s implosion at the World Cup in South Africa. Then this year Lemaitre earned greater credibility internationally by winning two medals against much stiffer competition at the world championships in Daegu, South Korea.

“I think before Daegu I wasn’t part of the club,” Lemaitre said. “It’s only since Daegu that I really started to be among the best in the world, but now I have to reconfirm that at the Olympics.”

He is still just 21, still an introvert who is working and sprinting in an extrovert’s domain, one ruled by the posturing and personality of Usain Bolt and one in which a major 100-meter race that lasts less than 10 seconds is typically followed by close to an hour of rehashing, with cameras and digital recorders rolling.

“In the beginning, I had a lot of trouble with it,” Lemaitre said. “And then with what’s happened and my performances improving, I had lots of new responsibilities and over time it’s gotten better and by doing it all the time it’s gotten easier.”

Easier but not yet in character. Whereas Bolt, even off the track, seems too big a presence to be contained by four walls, Lemaitre seems like the type who could sit silently at a corner table for hours, observing his fellow humans from a safe distance with his headphones, wispy goatee and internal dialogue in place.

“In the beginning,” said his coach, Pierre Carraz, “I was seriously asking myself if I wasn’t dealing with someone who was autistic. He hardly talked at all and even now he doesn’t talk much. But I’m beginning to think that he’s gifted in some way. He can happily do several things at the same time. He integrates information quickly.”

Lemaitre has started to emerge from his shell, and he is certainly a quick study on the track. He only took up sprinting at age 15 after failing to be enthused about soccer, team handball or rugby. “I was never – how to put it? – collectively minded,” Lemaitre said.

 But he knew that he was fast, and although he had never watched much track and didn’t even know who Carl Lewis or Michael Johnson were, in September 2005 he decided to take part in a 50-meter race at a small, local sports festival in the village of Belley near his family’s home in the Savoy region of eastern France. It was a hand-timed sprint on gravel, organized by coaches interested in detecting new recruits.

Lemaitre ended up with the fastest time of the day and an invitation to join the local athletics club. “I really liked that you didn’t owe anything to anyone else in track, not an explanation, not an apology,” Lemaitre said. “It’s really every man for himself.”

But Lemaitre has required the help of someone else to polish his raw talent. Carraz, a 71-year-old physical education teacher in the French school system, has been coaching track for more than 50 years.

He quickly took note of Lemaitre’s performance and soon invited him to the nearby spa town of Aix-les-Bains to train with his elite group.

“I saw he was very tall and didn’t have much muscle,” Carraz said. “He was all legs. It was only progressively that we saw he’d be really good. It wasn’t obvious right away.”

It took Lemaitre less than a year to break 11 seconds in the 100. This year he lowered his personal record in the 100 to 9.92 seconds and then ran the 200 in 19.80 seconds in September on his way to the bronze medal in Daegu, behind Bolt and the American Walter Dix.

10-second barrier

Last July, Lemaitre became the first white sprinter to record an official time under the symbolic 10-second barrier in the 100. He is sometimes called “L’Ã|clair blanc,” or white lightning, in the French press. Lemaitre, who has broken 10 seconds repeatedly now, has embraced neither the nickname nor the prospect of racial rivalry, but does like the idea that his success could encourage broader participation in the sprints, which have been long dominated by black athletes.

“I think that perhaps over time in the history of sprinting, I think people were perhaps so used to have only black sprinters in each final that perhaps subconsciously that created a bit of a psychological barrier,” Lemaitre said, choosing his words carefully.

“So perhaps if my performance, what I do, can help to advance and make the statement that it has nothing to do with the color of your skin and it’s just a question of work and desire and ambition, then why not, after all? But I don’t want it to be interpreted in the wrong way.”

Ato Boldon, a former sprinter from Trinidad and Tobago and now a leading commentator on the sport, said Lemaitre’s emergence was significant. “Lemaitre is important to sprinting for the same reason that the black quarterback is important in the NFL,” Boldon, who is black, said in an e-mail message. “It flies in the faces of what USED to be conventional wisdom. I can tell you that, for years, while we were at the top of the hill, Maurice Greene and I, while we rattled off countless sub-tens with ease, wondered aloud how it was possible that a single white sprinter had not YET done it. So I am glad to see Lemaitre do it often, and his better event is probably the 200.”

Lemaitre has a very long stride. According to Carraz, it is 2.7 meters long, or 8 feet, 8 inches, at full speed, which is about the same as Bolt’s, although Bolt stands 1.95 meters to Lemaitre’s 1.91. “With his height and the stride, the 200 is his future,” Carraz said of Lemaitre. “But that’s not going to keep him from some great performances in the 100. He’ll go under 9.90. That’s clear.”

For Boldon, Lemaitre’s start remains a major weakness: “His head is up, which means he pops 'up’ in every race while the better sprinters stay low.”

Improvement will presumably be required for Lemaitre to have a serious chance of an individual medal in his first Olympics.

The sprints are particularly dense in talented men. Bolt still holds the world record in the 100 (9.58 seconds) and in the 200 (19.19), but he never got to run the 100 final in Daegu after being disqualified for a false start. His younger Jamaican training partner, Yohan Blake, won the gold and then in September became the second-fastest 200 runner in history with a stunning time of 19.26.

“It will be very difficult next year,” Carraz said. “London is coming a little bit early in Christophe’s career.”

Blake is 21, too, and Bolt was 21 when the Beijing Olympics began in 2008. But Lemaitre does not appear to be punching in the same weight class as Bolt and does not sound resentful. “It’s great that global sprinting has someone like Bolt to bring prestige back to track and field,” he said. “I see it as good luck to be in the same era as Bolt.”

This summer, there will be 80,000 in Olympic Stadium, millions watching in France and elsewhere. It would seem no place for the timid, but then there is nothing timid about the way Lemaitre runs.

“Sprinting,” Lemaitre said, “allows me to express things I can’t express in the rest of my life.” With that, he rose from the table, shook hands and was off – quickly and quietly – to catch his train back home.

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