The biggest name in the world of sport declares that nobody
will ever beat him on the track and reveals what makes him
tick off it
Words Mark Bailey
Portraits Steve Jackson
Styling Abena Ofei
It is on a balmy June evening in Twickenham, London, inside the cavernous gymnasium at St Mary’s University College, that Usain Bolt, the world’s fastest man, makes his unexpected confession. “It is terrifying—seriously, seriously terrifying,” he whispers, eyes bulging with horror. Perched awkwardly on a plastic chair conspicuously too small for his 6ft 5in frame, the Jamaican leans forward conspiratorially, his muscular forearms resting on the piston-like thighs that have propelled him to new frontiers of human achievement. “I admit it—the thought of it scares the hell out of me.”
With just over a year to go until London 2012, Bolt, 24, should have every right to be petrified. The Olympic Games represents the business end of elite athletics; four years of training, sweat and pain concentrated into one brittle fragment in time; an opportunity for immortality will crystalise then dissipate in an instant. Watching his every move, an estimated global television audience of 4bn people will expect another celestial performance.
Killer ants, that’s what scares me. The Olympics? No, I am not afraid of that. It will be awesome, man.”
Is the laid-back Caribbean superstar, as cool and dawdling as the droplets sliding down a chilled bottle of Jamaican Red Stripe lager, finally cracking? Has the infamous nugget-eater turned chicken? Not exactly. “I’m telling you,” he continues, in his rich, undulating accent. “The thought that in Africa there is an ant that is really small and can kill you with one bite… I mean, come on, man! That is scary. I was watching the Discovery Channel and they said that you probably wouldn’t die instantly, but maybe in a day or two you will start swelling up and then it will all end. From an ant? Killer ants, that’s what scares me. The Olympics? No, I am not afraid of that. It will be awesome, man.”
Usain St Leo Bolt isn’t like other athletes. The reigning Olympic and World Champion and world record holder in the 100m (9.58 seconds), 200m (9.19 seconds) and the 4 x 100m relay (37.10 seconds) has revolutionised track and field with his superhuman achievements. Research by Ethan Siegel, a theoretical astrophysicist at Lewis & Clark College, revealed that, judging by the incremental progression of the 100m record over the past 100 years, Bolt has arrived 30 years ahead of time. His feats should not be possible until 2039.
Off the track, Bolt is equally unique. He eats cookies when he should be counting carbs. He DJs when he should be dozing. And he remains ice cool when others freeze in fear. Not even the thought of 1m people applying for tickets for the 100m final rattles him. “I hope they were coming to see me,” he smiles. “The Olympics in London is going to be huge. I think this will be bigger than Beijing and I will see so many Jamaican flags with all the Jamaican people living here. This is the first time people are making a big deal about track and field. That is a real honour for me. People have been saying that I’ve been good for athletics and I entertain and that is a good thing. It means the sport can make money, stay strong and more kids will want to be athletes in the future.”
Bolt’s appeal—a vibrant cocktail of raw talent, effervescent personality and a sweet dollop of boyish charm—has helped him to transcend the lane markings of the track to become the most marketable athlete on the planet. At the peak of his Beijing heroics, “Usain Bolt” was Googled 7.5 times more than searches for David Beckham and Tiger Woods. Today, Bolt is being photographed for the launch issue of PODIUM magazine, as he promotes the new Puma FAAS 300 running shoes. He’s styled in the classic Clark Kent/Superman pose, echoing Michael Johnson’s endorsement of him as “Superman II”. An ordinary guy with extraordinary powers. The tag fits.
From another planet
I read out a quote from Stephen Francis, coach of Bolt’s friend and rival Asafa Powell, “You have Einstein, you have Isaac Newton, you have Beethoven and you have Usain Bolt. It’s not explainable how and what they do.”
“I think I’ve seen this quote,” Bolt says, but instantly zones in on the impact of his personality. “If you watch, you can see that I’ve had an effect. People are more relaxed now and trying to have fun. Even Asafa is doing it now. Spectators can say, ‘Ah, he’s that kind of person’ or ‘he likes this or that’ and you identify with the athlete, they’re not just numbers. In that way, I have changed the sport a little bit.”
But what about the effects of his athletic genius? “They say that great sportsmen come along every 10 years,” he grins. “So I’m hoping that the next great track athlete comes along in 45 years so I will keep my records for a long, long time.” Given Bolt’s unique physical attributes—his elongated frame and a high percentage of explosive fast-twitch muscle fibres—any world records he sets could be set in amber for many years to come, perhaps even longer than American Bob Beamon’s iconic long-jump record which lasted 23 years.
“But I’m not finished yet,” Bolt continues. “I know I can go quicker and it’s likely to be at the World Championships (in South Korea in August 2011) or in London. You try to peak at the right moment, that is what your training is all about and you have real energy at the big events with the big crowds when you really want to perform.”
Here he hints at the widely ignored performance benefits associated with his demeanour. Bolt is an “extrovert”: someone who obtains gratification from external factors, like the crowd, the cameras, his opponents. While others choke under pressure, Bolt thrives on the oxygen of attention. To use Jungian theory, he gains a perceived energy boost when people are around him. In the pressure-filled coliseum of modern sport, that’s a distinct advantage. As is his nonchalant attitude: when the muscles relax, the speed increases.
In his 2010 autobiography, Usain Bolt: My Story, the sprinter wrote that he hoped to conquer the 100m in 9.4 seconds and the 200m in under 19 seconds. Does his coach Glen Mills think he’s on track? “Yeah, coach thinks those times are achievable,” says Bolt. “He thinks I haven’t peaked yet and I’m a lot stronger now physically.” To gain valuable milliseconds, he has worked hard on his starts (in the 100m final in Beijing his reaction time of 0.165 seconds was the second slowest), his bend-running technique, his flexibility and his strength. “Actually, I shouldn’t really be saying this,” he whispers, “but he thinks I have a better chance of getting…” Bolt reveals a time for the 200m that leaves me stunned but which he’d prefer not to be printed. Really? “Yeah, but he’s always right, man.” All I can say is: we’ve seen nothing yet.
It’s devastating news for Bolt’s opponents. Last summer he suffered his first defeat for two years, losing to American Tyson Gay in Stockholm, and he returned from injury this year with a distinctly human 100m run of 9.91 seconds in Rome. The evidence of rust has given his rivals hope.
Bolt disagrees. “Last year was always going to be a quiet year for me,” he says. “2011 is purely about getting back to my top level, race by race, after my injury. When I’m on top form, I have no worries at all. You will not beat me, not ever. I don’t think about the others. I can just completely clear my head. If I’m out of shape, then somebody might get me, but if I’m on top form nobody can beat me. I can clearly say that to anybody.”
Nonetheless, he acknowledges that Gay is his biggest threat. “Tyson, it has to be Tyson,” he says. “He’s more determined than ever. I think (Yohan) Blake is trying to be one too. I know he is because I see him every day when I’m training. But that’s a good thing, so I can see where he is—he’s getting there, but he’s not there yet.”
What drives Bolt? “I want to be a legend,” he says. “The real legends, like Michael Johnson, win again and again.”
For the first time a flash of something more serious flickers behind his eyes. “The fact is I’m a really determined person. I thrive on challenges. So when a championship comes up, I really, seriously want to win that more than anything else. That’s when all guns are blazing and I don’t think of anything else. I’m not always the best when it comes to training—I can be lazy—but when it comes to championships I mean business.”
Sculpting the ice man
Despite his preternatural gifts, Bolt is part of a wider Jamaican sprint success story, alongside the likes of Asafa Powell and Veronica Campbell-Brown. Numerous theories for this have been mooted—from the prevalence of the speed protein Actinen A in Jamaican athletes (70% compared to 30% in Australians, according to the University of Glasgow) to the uncomfortable notion of the slave trade providing a stronger gene pool. But the island’s competitive amateur system is a critical factor. The apex of the system is Champs (the Inter-Secondary Schools Boys and Girls Championships), in which youngsters compete in front of 30,000 boisterous fans at the National Stadium.
“Don’t even get me started on Champs,” Bolt says. “It’s seriously a big deal in Jamaica. I get nervous just watching these races because the crowd is so full of energy and there is so much pressure. But that’s why we Jamaicans don’t choke at the Olympics. The pressure and the expectation and the loud crowds don’t faze us because we’ve been through it when we’re younger at Champs.”
If Champs galvanised Bolt and sharpened his competitive edge, it was his victory at the World Junior Championships in Kingston in 2002, aged just 15, that set him on the road to fame and fortune.
“There was so much pressure on me ahead of my 200m that I was putting the wrong spikes on the wrong foot,” he says. “I was so nervous. But I stayed strong and won. So I said to myself: why would I ever be nervous again? If I can win as a nervous wreck with all those Jamaican people expecting me to win, why can’t I win at the Olympic Games? That is when I became so relaxed.”
Today, Bolt lives in Kingston, Jamaica, with his friend and assistant NJ and his younger brother Sadiki, a promising batsman with Melbourne Cricket Club. “I encourage him to get fit,” Bolt says. “It is key in cricket with the sun beating down on you all day. I get him to train with me, do abs work, gym work, back and legs to keep him physically and mentally sharp.”
Bolt senior has a walk-in wardrobe of designer clothes, a games room to make any 10-year-old weep with envy and a fleet of six cars: a BMW 335, Nissan GTR Skyline, Toyota Tundra, Honda Torneo, Honda Accord and an Audi Q7. But he maintains some surprisingly humble pastimes.
“Dominoes is the best,” he enthuses. “When I was younger I was good at maths and that is quite important. You have to remember everything that is happening in the game, it’s all about strategy. My coach is a genius. He can almost beat anybody. I could play any guy my age and beat them but as soon as I play someone who is 50-plus, you’re gone. You think you’ve got them and then suddenly the game just changes. They reel you in and blow you away. They look relaxed, but they’re systematically destroying you.” It’s a tactic Bolt’s sprint rivals will be painfully familiar with.
He enjoys watching basketball (he’s a Boston Celtics fan), but his obsession is football and, in particular, Manchester United for whom he recently claimed he was good enough to play. “I was lucky enough to go to a training session in Manchester and it was amazing,” he says. “You can watch the TV but to see these skills up-close in training was wonderful. Awesome. Pace is so important in football. Me and Rooney—now that would be cool!”
I know why Ronaldo loves Spain. Beautiful women, man. Wonderful women. Nice weather and beautiful women.”
Yet he doesn’t expect Cristiano Ronaldo will come back to help them topple Barcelona. “Ronaldo left because he just wanted to go back home. Nobody is going to get him to leave Real Madrid until maybe he gets old. He loves Spain. And I know why: beautiful women, man. Wonderful women. Nice weather and beautiful women.”
Before igniting the Premier League, Bolt is set to transfer his talents to other athletics events such as the 400m or long jump. “They’re both possibilities but my coach says I shouldn’t talk about that until after the Olympics,” he says, disappointed but deferential. “He just doesn’t want everybody asking ‘Why haven’t you done long jump?’ if I change my mind. So after the Olympics we’ll take a month and decide, but I would definitely like to try another event for 2016.”
What events does he enjoy watching as a fan? “Hurdles are good as you never know who is going to win. Maybe I should do that? I like watching women’s hurdles as the 110m hurdlers are hot. When I watch hurdles, there has only been one time when I have (correctly) predicted who would win. It’s so exciting. They slip on hurdles, pull their hamstring, fall near the line… I would never finish. All that training, then one hurdle and—boom—you’re gone.”
Some British athletes have also caught his eye. “Who is that girl? Jess Ennis,” he giggles. “I like her.” What about fellow crowd-pleaser Phillips Idowu? “He is crazy, man,” he laughs. “He has the right energy.”
Bolt’s success has taken him around the world. He declares that business-class travel is a must and enjoys the queue-skipping joys of the diplomatic passport he gained after receiving the prestigious Order of Jamaica in 2009. “I get mobbed in Asia,” he says, but there is one place nobody recognises him. “Teddington,” he laughs, citing the quiet West London suburb where he trains. “Everywhere but Teddington. Also, nobody knows me in Germany for some reason. In Berlin, maybe, but in Munich not so much.”
What’s in his hand luggage? “I always pack my Beats headphones, a Gucci belt and a Puma belt in… my Gucci bag,” he says, raising his eyebrows with mock pride. “My laptop, iPod, iPod charger, Skittles—tropical flavour—and my adaptor. You’ve got to have one of those or you’re in trouble.”
When the conversation concludes with a discussion about Bolt’s future, he reveals intriguing plans to enter the business world. He recently launched a bar-restaurant in Kingston called Usain Bolt’s Tracks & Records. “The bar is going well and it’s always fun when sports events are on,” he says. “We’re working on one for London in time for the Olympics. That will be cool. In the future I want to work with my clothing line, restaurants, shoes and cars.”
Of course, when Bolt has stopped setting superhuman records, secured his place in the pantheon of athletics legends and, he hopes, lifted a few titles with Manchester United, his new career in business will inevitably be moulded in the inimitable Bolt style. “I see myself in an office with my own business,” he muses. “But the office is empty—a massive table, a leather swivel chair, a notebook… but no pen. I’ll have a big TV. No, not a TV, a projector. With a PlayStation. I’ll have a fridge and a phone to order some pizzas. And maybe a hot secretary for looks: ‘Hello, can I get a pizza please? Pepperoni, thank you very much.’ I can say to people, ‘I’m going to work,’ but in reality I just want to get away from the wife and kids for a bit and play computer games all day. I’ll do nothing, just sign the cheques. Make some money without doing nothing. That’s what I’m talking about.”
PUMA athlete Usain Bolt wears the PUMA FAAS 300 running shoe, available from www.prodirectrunning.com
Mark Bailey is a freelance sports journalist based in London
With just over a year to go until London 2012, Bolt, 24, should have every right to be petrified
Charcoal grey, single-breasted suit, white cotton shirt, black silk tie, white pocket square, black leather Oxfords—all by gucci, www.gucci.com