When I mentioned yesterday to a colleague that I had just interviewed Xavier Carter, he said: “That’s great, what did he…actually, I’ve got to be honest, I don’t know who he is.”
After I’d told him who the “X-Man” is and why he is of interest, he said he was embarrassed and shook his head.
No need to be embarrassed colleague “x”, I didn’t really know who Carter was until about an hour before talking to him, and neither did most of the office.
And I wonder, whilst we’re being candid, how many of you (who don’t visit the athletics index very often) can say you know who Xavier Carter is? And I don’t mean who he is deep down when the crowds have gone home. I mean who he is at all.
Well, for those that don’t and haven’t already guessed, Carter is the next superstar sprinter to emerge lycra-clad, wearing sunglasses and bristling with muscles from the American track and field factory.
You probably missed it (he is pretty rapid) but last summer the Louisiana State University student became the first athlete to match Jesse Owens’ haul of four titles at the US college championships. He then turned pro, signed a contract with Nike, got a passport and travelled to Europe to race in the big-money meets.
In his second outing, at Lausanne, the then 20-year-old stopped the clock at 19.63 seconds for 200m. American experts knew all about Carter, now the international circuit did too.
The only sprinter to cover that distance faster is Michael Johnson. The incomparable Texan appeared to carve his name into the record books for decades when he clocked 19.32 seconds as a 28-year-old at the 1996 Olympics.
But here was a novice getting within a few yards of Johnson’s record despite admitting he had run a bad bend and still had lots to learn. And Carter has since suggested that he thinks a record-breaking 200m is possible this year.
Johnson, as most sports fans remember, also holds the world record for 400m. The versatile Carter has that in his sights too.
Oh, and as if the Carter v Johnson angle isn’t ringing your bell yet, Johnson is coaching Carter’s main rival at 400m, fellow American and reigning Olympic champion Jeremy Wariner.
When I asked Carter if he had met the legendary Johnson (legendary for the shirts he wears when commentating for the BBC, if nothing else), he said: “No.”
When I asked if he had any plans to get in contact with Johnson, he said: “No.”
Sensing my unease (at asking two yes/no questions in a row), he added: “I’m just doing my own thing.”
Fine, Xavier. No problem at all. Athletics, particularly sprinting, needs a bit of aggro to give it some edge.
Aggro but not needle. The sport has had rather too much of that recently, which is why Carter is probably not even a household name in his hometown of Melbourne, Florida. But more on that later.
Carter is in the UK this weekend. He is running the 400m in the Norwich Union Grand Prix at Birmingham’s National Indoor Arena. And he should win. He was, after all, the top-rated man indoors over the distance last season.
And if truth be told, athletics in this country could do with him winning and hopefully tempting a few picture editors with his crossed-forearms “X” victory salute. Because the reason so few of us here had heard of Carter, and I’m guessing so few of you too, is that British athletics has taken a few knocks of late.
A lack of success, a shortage of characters, Dwain Chambers, the drip-drip suggestion that the sport is wasting lottery money…pick your poison. Whichever you choose, the result is the same: apathy.
All sports in this country struggle to compete for the sunshine of public attention with the out-of-control leylandii that is Premiership football, but British athletics’ misfortune has been compounded by the fact other non-mainstream sports have provided the public with some much-needed cheer.
There is now a real chance that our athletes will be shown up at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing in the medal stakes by our boxers, cyclists, divers, rowers, sailors, swimmers and triathletes. This is a sorry state of affairs for a country that has grown used to winning at least half a dozen athletics medals, with a few golds.
OK, I know steps have been taken and there is a new team in place at UK Athletics, and I also know it’s all about 2012 now.
But athletics in this country could really use some solid results and some old-fashioned razzamataz. Ideally, English 60m prospect Craig Pickering can provide the former, while Carter gives us the latter.
Which brings me back to the X-Man’s own predicament. Athletics isn’t just struggling here. It has taken a pummelling back in the US too.
The sport has traditionally been even further down the pecking order in the US than it has here. Your average American sports fan only really cares about “track and field” when the Olympics come around, and then it is a simple case of “U, S, A!”
So what the sport has done in recent years is the equivalent of attempted suicide. Drug story after drug story has left a nation at first disgusted and then just bored.
All of which makes Carter’s decision to turn his back on American sport’s leylandii, the NFL, all the more surprising.
Please don’t confuse his two-sport prowess with the old story about Darren Campbell being on the books at Plymouth Argyle. Carter was the number one receiver coming out of high school in 2004. And he was recruited to play for one of the nation’s top gridiron colleges. At 6ft 3in, 15st and with a 10-second 100m, Carter was heading for the big time.
So why did he change tack and go for track? Who knows…maybe he didn’t fancy taking the hits anymore, not that I would suggest that to his face. He is massive.
Or perhaps he thinks he can win multiple golds in 2008 and 2012 and then return to gridiron at 26, thereby writing himself into US sports legend.
I’m going for the latter. American track and field needs somebody with that kind of ambition and talent right now.
British athletics will be hoping some of that “X-Man” magic rubs off on to a British competitor this weekend. Because magic is what it needs right now.