When Michael Johnson set a world record in the 200-meter race at the 1996 Olympics wearing custom-designed golden Nikes, he earned the nickname “The Man With the Golden Shoes.”
But in 2008, at the Beijing Olympic Games, the world met a new man with golden shoes. Hailing from Trelawny, Jamaica, his name was Usain Bolt.
Aside from his extraordinary margin of victory in the 100-meter final — and his celebration before he even crossed the finish line — spectators also took great notice of his now-famous Golden Pumas.
But after the race was won, where did those gilded shoes go?
The search takes us back to 2004.
After representing Jamaica in the Athens Olympics, swimmer Jevon Atkinson was looking for a new coach to help him qualify for the Beijing Games. Atkinson had a simple goal: to break the Jamaican record in the 50-meter freestyle.
Luckily, Atkinson found Sam Freas III in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., the home of the International Swimming Hall of Fame. Freas trained him and took him to meets until Atkinson successfully qualified for the Olympics in 2008.
But, according to Freas’ father Dr. Sam Freas, Jamaican officials did not send the coach to Beijing, leaving Atkinson to compete without a coach behind him.
Despite that setback, Atkinson had a goal to accomplish and a record to break.
And the entire Jamaican track team — including Bolt — attended the swimmer’s race for support.
“But they [wouldn’t] let him swim,” Dr. Freas said.
Since Atkinson did not have a coach, he was unaware that he needed his athlete credentials at the starting block in order to race.
“They held up the meet, and he had to run all over the place to find [his credentials],” Dr. Freas said.
After all of the commotion, Atkinson was finally allowed to compete, and despite the hullabaloo, he still managed to break the Jamaican record.
Two days later, Bolt shattered the world record in the 100, wearing spikes that strikingly resembled Johnson’s from twelve years earlier.
Designed by Puma, the shoes were personalized by Bolt to bear his nickname “UGO” and the words “100m Beijing.”
Bolt was aware of the efforts that Atkinson’s coach made to get his Olympic teammate to the big stage. So in gratitude, he gave his golden kicks to the younger Freas.
“He called me and [said], ‘Dad, you’ll never believe this, but I have Usain Bolt’s shoes,” Dr. Freas recalled.
After gaining permission from Bolt, the swimming coach donated the shoes to a local school to be sold in an auction.
As such, Bolt will not be donning his gilded kicks at this year’s Penn Relays.
But one remnant of the incredible story will be at the event.
Dr. Freas, a former Penn Relays competitor, will be in attendance.
He also recently released a book called “Toujours Amis, Always Friends,” a “factional” account — what Dr. Freas described as a blend of fact and fiction — of a star athlete’s journey around the world that begins and ends at the Penn Relays.
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