Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

White lightning

Combination of speed, skin colour thrusts French sprinter into spotlight

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AIX-LES-BAINS, France -- Christophe Lemaitre knows Usain Bolt and other sprinters may monopolize the Olympic medals in London. But Europe's best hope of thwarting the Jamaican and American men over 100 or 200 metres still expects to make an impression, by continuing to prove that running fast isn't a question of skin colour.

Although he wishes it wasn't so, the fact that Lemaitre is white has, along with his speed, been a talking point since July 2010. That was when France's fastest man first ran the 100 in under 10 seconds, erasing Ronald Pognon's French record.

Dozens of sprinters around the world had previously breached 10 seconds, but French media played up that Lemaitre was the first white to do it.

"White like lightning," said the newspaper Liberation. "Do records have a colour?" asked the website of Le Monde.

Lemaitre was shocked.

"I figured people would talk about the performance, say 'Christophe Lemaitre is the second Frenchman to run under 10 seconds and he has broken the French record.' That's what I thought would be the topic of discussion," he said in a recent interview with The Associated Press.

"Instead, the performance was tied to the subject of skin colour. And I don't think there's a place for that in sport."

For years, black sprinters have dominated the 100, 200 and 400. The last white male to win an Olympic sprint gold was American Jeremy Wariner in the 400 at the 2004 Athens Games. No white sprinter has even contested the men's Olympic 100 final since Britain's Allan Wells won it at the 1980 Moscow Games hit by a U.S.-led boycott.

Lemaitre doesn't have a ready explanation for all this -- "I have never really thought about it," he said. But he recognizes that being a white elite sprinter makes him stand out, although he also finds it "strange that it's talked about."

"People were so -- how to say? -- formatted, well, not formatted, but so accustomed to seeing only black runners in the finals of big international competitions, like the world championships and Olympic Games, that it shocks them to see a white man in the middle," he said. "They think to themselves, '100 metres equals black sprinters."'

He hopes his success will open minds and have "an effect on people's prejudices."

"Perhaps they will say -- I hope they will say -- that it has nothing to do with skin colour, that it's not only blacks who run fast," he said. "Perhaps it will smash some psychological barriers about that."

Unlike Tiger Woods and other athletes driven by ambition from childhood, Lemaitre seemingly stumbled on his sport almost by accident. He wasn't an avid fan of track and field and didn't have posters of athletes on his bedroom walls.

"I knew I had a bit of potential. I was always being told I was quicker than everyone else, at school or doing sports at the gym," he said.

Only at age 15 did coaches notice his speed, at a sports fair where his time over 50 metres was the quickest of the day.

Introverted and not a natural talker, Lemaitre lives and trains in Aix-les-Bains, in the foothills of the French Alps. With its lake, crisp mountain air and grass running track, the town is quiet and unpretentious like Lemaitre.

"At the beginning, he wouldn't speak. I used to say to myself, 'Who is this kid?' He was silent, timid, so I couldn't figure him out," said his coach, Pierre Carraz.

But Lemaitre's "exceptional talent" soon shone through, Carraz said. Lemaitre learns quickly -- "You tell him something, he stares at the ground, you think he hasn't heard you, but he's heard everything," the coach added. Lemaitre also is almost as tall as Bolt, with a stride as long as that of the Olympic 100 and 200 champion.

At 20, Lemaitre ran the 100 faster than Bolt, former world champion Tyson Gay and former world record holder Asafa Powell at the same age. Lemaitre is the European champion over 100 and 200. He won the 200 bronze at the 2011 worlds -- behind Bolt and American Walter Dix.

Lemaitre will be 22 at the London Games. He and Carraz both say these Olympics are coming a little too early in his career and that his best chance for an Olympic medal will be 2016, in Rio de Janeiro. By then, Carraz hopes, Bolt will have had his fill of success and retired.

"In Rio, I think Bolt won't be there anymore but he (Lemaitre) will and he'll have gone up an echelon or two in the world hierarchy," Carraz said. "In London, the medals are going to be difficult, very difficult. We can't have too many illusions about that."

"I know it's going to be more complicated, very difficult, to get the gold medal," Lemaitre added. "A place on the podium, why not?"

He may run either the 100 or 200, rather than exhaust himself attempting both.

"We prefer to prioritize one race so I'll be completely 100 per cent fresh," Lemaitre said.

Lemaitre said he's driven by "a horror of losing." Without going into specifics, he also alluded to unpleasant things he endured when he was growing up and suggested they may be another reason why he's so quick.

"I'm taking revenge on life a little bit, for everything I went through as a teenager," he said.

Carraz was more explicit.

"Kids can be rough with each other. I think he was teased a lot at school," Carraz said. He described Lemaitre as someone who locks in his emotions -- "They're not expansive, it's bottled up and it comes out in competition. That, I think, is the case with him a little bit."

But on whether skin colour determines speed, Lemaitre was crystal clear.

"I don't think it plays a big role," he said. "I have always said that when you work, when you have willpower and want to do something well and to the hilt, you can achieve what you want regardless of where you come from and your origins."

 

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 15, 2012 A1

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