BIRMINGHAM, England (Reuters) - As usual, Kim Collins — at 41 one of track’s most enduring, popular and charismatic figures — made everyone in the athletics arena smile on Saturday but it was for the last time.
“I keep telling them I could be their father so they need to give me some respect!” laughed the man who seems to have sprinted on forever as he talked of his opponents in the heats of the 60 metres at the world indoor championships.
“Some of them don’t like it that their mum is my biggest fan — but it’s all fun and games.”
It has always been fun and games with this most laid-back and cool of Caribbean athletes but Collins, the one-time world 100 metres champion who put his home of Saint Kitts & Nevis on the sporting map, confirmed the bad news for his huge fan club.
“This is it. My last competition. I just can’t do it any more,” said Collins with a pained look.
“Of course, you feel young and I’d love to carry on but the body has been doing so much for so many years, it’s time to just say ‘bye’ and for me it’s peace.
“It’s not about the high note or the low note, it’s just about leaving in peace.”
And leaving to cheers once more too. The Birmingham fans, as every athletics crowd has done for 15 years, roared the 2003 world champ to the rafters as he qualified for Saturday’s semi-finals.
Sadly, though, there was to be no farewell bow to his fans later as he withdrew just before the semis, reportedly with an injury.
It was an anti-climactic end to an emotional day for the wispy figure who has been beating muscle-bound sprint heavyweights with his light touch for more than two decades.
Collins, who did jobs as a painter, labourer, bricklayer, disc jockey and security officer to pay his way while building his garlanded athletics career, even found himself being asked for advice by an awe-struck youngster 25 years his junior who was racing him in the adjacent lane.
By some happy chance, a 16-year-old Maltese schoolboy Jacob El Aida, the youngest competitor at the entire championships, got drawn next to the oldest, Collins, and the teenager was not going to miss the chance to learn from the only sprinter to grace five Olympics.
“The most important thing is that you have to respect the sport,” Collins told the teenager who said he had grown up watching videos of the ageless one on YouTube.
“Most people don’t respect the sport and that’s why you see so many sprinters come and go. A lot win one medal and their career is over because they don’t know how to last and be good to the sport.”
Collins was always good to his sport, with never an inkling of suspicion surrounding him in a sprint world riddled by cynicism and doubt. So what next for the man who has devoted himself so assiduously to athletics?
“Well, first, I want to go home and roll around in the sun for like a week after being in so much cold,” he said of his stay in snowy Birmingham.
“But there’s a lot of things I’m working on. One would be coaching. I will start with that because that’s my love,” he added, reckoning that there might be a young athlete on his dual-island nation who would continue to fly the flag for Saint Kitts & Nevis.
How did he hope to be remembered by his sport? Collins paused briefly before suggesting with that trademark smile: “I think they’ll say: ‘You know he’s a good guy who didn’t give much trouble, wasn’t a diva, was good to watch and had a good personality’.”
Nobody could ever argue with that.
Editing by Clare Fallon and Pritha Sarkar