Ostrava, Czech Republic: Ostrava is a place Usain Bolt calls a second home, an unlikely compliment for a polluted steel city in the north-eastern Czech Republic and as far removed from Jamaica as one could imagine.
Antiquated trams snake through rows of tenement housing blocks across a flat cityscape scarred by an industrial revolution that thrived on the city’s coalfields.
Once dubbed the “steel heart” of the country, Ostrava’s last coal mine closed in 1994 and the blast furnace shut down four years later.
“Ostrava is a steel city, famous for being a dark city, steel workers, a hard city,” admitted Alfons Juck, organiser of the prestigious IAAF World Challenge Golden Spike meeting.
But Juck has pushed the boat out for Bolt, who makes his ninth appearance in Ostrava on Wednesday, bringing kudos and publicity for the third-largest city in the Czech Republic that straddles the border of the historic provinces of Moravia and Silesia.
“Bolt was a talent. We see up-and-coming athletes and invite them,” Juck told AFP, the Jamaican having first been invited in 2004 as a junior before making his actual debut in 2006.
Tailored to demand
Organisers realised they were on to a good thing with Bolt, bucking other meets’ reticence to back just one star athlete and quickly tailoring their meet to his demands.
“We were always ready well in advance to discuss the date which could be convenient for him and the event,” Juck acknowledged.
“We gave priority in our preparation and the whole set-up of the meet to Usain.
“It’s tough to come here, so in recent years we have a private jet for him from London to Ostrava. We know he’s a tall man and the planes from Prague to Ostrava are small, it would be tough for him.
“It’s due to our relationship, his group and the people around him really like our approach, we try to do what is necessary, not only for economics, that’s the base and everybody can do that... and we started really to be friends.”
Bolt, winner of eight Olympic and 11 world gold medals, is in the swansong season of his glittering career, but once again added Ostrava to a select list of venues to witness him bowing out of track and field.
“One meet I was always going to come to was Ostrava. I’m happy that I got to come here because it’s one of my favourite meets,” said Bolt, who opened his season in Kingston and will also run in the Monaco Diamond League before bidding farewell at the World Athletics Championships in London in August.
“To run here for the last time is a great feeling because I’ve been coming here for years... it’s almost like home, it’s a wonderful feeling.”
Juck admitted that Bolt had the same room whenever he came — having missed just the 2013 and 2014 events — equipped with PlayStation for his downtime.
“The whole cooperation was really good and he has said every time since 2006 ‘Yes I want to be back’,” he said.
Bolt praised the ever-resilient crowd at the Golden Spike, saying it “has always been good”.
“It’s always been good memories here,” he said. “No matter how cold it is, what the weather is, the fans come out and support, there’s always a full stadium.
“It’s a big thing. I’ve been to many meets when it’s cold and people don’t turn up as much. It really matters when I get the support because the crowd really pushes me to do my best.”
Bolt loves the place, nestled 15km from the Polish border, and it is reciprocal.
Soaring 78 metres (256ft) into the sky from one of the city’s unique heritage sites, the former blast furnace, is the ‘Bolt Tower’.
“We asked him whether we could call it Bolt Tower and he said yes, it was a great publicity coup,” said Juck.
But Juck faces a challenge in filling Bolt’s giant footprints.
“It is interesting because obviously we must find new goals in that sense,” Juck said, hinting that Bolt’s training partner Wayde van Niekerk, the South African who also ran his first professional race on the IAAF circuit in Ostrava, in 2013, would be the next star.
“I don’t think there can be a new Bolt because he was so special,” Juck added.
“There can be new stars but not a new Bolt. He brings super results, 9.5, 19.1, something we won’t see for some years to come, and all the things around him, with his charisma and personality and show elements, nobody can do it.
“I’m not saying that because he’s my friend but because I’m really following the sport. Previous dominant champions have been arrogant but Usain’s not, he’s a nice guy.”