Usain Bolt exclusive interview: the 100m gold medal star talks to Sport
With great irony, the world’s fastest man arrives late, walking at a glacial pace and with a pained expression on his face. We hear the deep, undulating boom of his voice a full minute before he ducks his head to enter a doorway designed by a man who clearly hadn’t considered his dimensions.
Usain Bolt is in pain and impatient. “Pleased to meet you,” he says, offering his hand. “But I need to pee.” And with that he’s gone, shuffling back towards the door, the gentlemen’s and his blessed release.
Bolt has been sitting in a car for several hours, shuffling at a snail’s pace through the capital’s constipated streets – welcome to London. When he finally returns to the room, he eases himself back and spreads his 6ft 5ins frame across a chaise long.
The pained expression now faded, Bolt has assumed his favourite position: sat on his backside, conserving energy. The smile you’ve seen a hundred times stretches across his face. “Life’s good,” he says. “It’s good to be here.”
If Bolt is feeling the pressure of being London 2012’s poster boy – the man whose prospective presence in the 100m final saw more than a million people scramble for 80,000 tickets, which sold out in minutes – he’s not showing it. If he’s feeling the weight of expectation from an audience of four billion – the predicted number of people around the world who will watch in anticipation of seeing him not only reclaim his three golds, but do so while running faster than any man has ever run before – that’s not showing either. And if he’s feeling the pressure of struggling for fitness and form, and having his friend and training partner Yohan Blake breathing down his neck in the 100m and 200m, you really wouldn’t know to look at him now. But that seems the most appropriate place to start…
DO WHAT YOU GOT TO DO
Usain Bolt is finished. When we tell him this his eyes widen and he chuckles at the absurdity. “That’s what they saying? That’s just what the British papers write,” he smiles. “The problem for them is that too much good is not good, y’know – they need some negativity. But one thing I’ve learned is that the media is not your friend. You go about your business and do what you got to do."
The bigger problem for Bolt has been that what he “got to do“, what he was born to do – running fast enough to justify his surname – has been, well, something of a struggle in the months and weeks leading up to these Games. As recently as last May, having laboured to victory in the Czech Republic in 10.04s, one notable journalist asked if Bolt would even make it through Jamaica’s Olympic trials for the 100m. He obviously did, but could only qualify in both the 100m and the 200m behind that man Blake. And that is where the ’Usain Bolt is finished’ theory found its voice.
Some claim Bolt’s struggles in qualifying were simply a calculated plan to throw the world off his scent. Knowing even third place in the trials would secure his spot in London, he chose not to risk injury by overreaching. Some also see logic in increasing the expectations and pressure on his closest rival for gold. Even so, when Blake’s name inevitably comes up, Bolt’s smile drops slightly and he becomes a tiny fraction more serious.
Famously, nothing much frightens Usain St Leo Bolt, apart from African killer ants and swimming in deep water where he can’t see what’s lurking beneath. Now we can add one more to that list: the fear of losing one or both of his Olympic golds to his younger compatriot, the man nicknamed ’The Beast’. ”I’m not scared,“ he shrugs. ”But the truth is I’m feeling a little bit of nerves or something. I don’t wanna lose my medals to Blake or any man. But I guess everybody feel the nerves in some way, so this is normal."
Whatever they are, Bolt has become a true master of suppressing any self-doubt and projecting preposterous confidence. It wasn’t always thus.
Back in 2002, competing in the World Junior Championships in Jamaica, the 15-year-old Bolt had been so gripped by doubting demons that he put his spikes on the wrong feet. He swapped them in time, won the race and vowed never again to run scared. So he formulated the following ingenious and complicated three-point plan:
Point 1: Just don’t think about it.
Point 2: Pretend it’s not happening.
Point 3: See Point 1 and repeat.
In sport, and particularly the men’s 100m, much of the battle is waged behind closed doors. “The warm-up area is the place where you learn everything,” says British coach Frank Dick, who was present backstage in the moments leading up to the most infamous 100m in history – Seoul 1988.
“You could see these guys playing their games, and their totally different approaches: the surliness of [Ben] Johnson and the flamboyance of [Carl] Lewis. They were like two prizefighters. Gladiators. There was so much tension, it was tingling."
The two chose very different approaches: Lewis worked the room, shaking hands with his rivals; Johnson retreated into himself, and beat himself up for accidentally accepting Lewis’ hand.
Four-time Olympic champion Michael Johnson had his own approach. ”Before a race, you can be in a call room and be as close to your competitor as we are now,” he told Sport, sat no more than six feet away. ”So, of course, I’m minding my own business, I’ve got my own focus... but if I look up and see that you’re looking at me, then I’m going to look at you because I don’t want you to think that I’m intimidated. And then that guy would look away, but he will look back to check if I’m still looking at him, and he’ll find – you know what? – I’m still looking at him. And that scared them. Mission accomplished."
As for Usain Bolt, what will he focus on? ”Girls, I guess,“ he chuckles. ”Back there before the race, there will be guys who want to stay quiet and stay focused, and guys who want to talk. I prefer to talk, so I’ll talk to any of the Caribbean guys because we know each other and we cool. I’ll probably end up talking with Yohan, because he definitely likes to talk, and we’ll just talk about girls, cars, music... anything that takes your mind off the race."
Talking to Blake? His closest rival for gold? Is he entirely mental? This is surely a time for mind games. At the very least, he should be giving him some ’Johnson Eyes’. ”Why do I need do that?” he coughs. ”Listen, you don’t need to play mind games if you know you can beat the other person or the other people in there. Mind games are not necessary for me. I just stay relaxed and do my own thing.
So at what point does Bolt actually start thinking about the race, and about the plans he and his coach have worked on for the past four years?
”The first time I think about that is when I hear ’on your marks’,“ he laughs. “All that time before we in the blocks, I’ll be waving at the crowd and all that and I’ll still be thinking about anything other than what I’m about to do. Usually, I’ll just think about computer games, because I love playing computer games so they take my mind away.“ (Bolt’s favourite game, by some distance, is Black Ops, a blood-soaked war game on the PlayStation 3. So while you might imagine he’ll be contemplating his race strategy in the moments before the race, he’s more likely got murder in mind.)
This sounds ridiculous – the most critical moment of Usain Bolt’s life and he’s still refusing to think about it. He laughs at me laughing at him and then offers an explanation.
”I’m serious. Look, the way it is, when you train, the way you train is to get your techniques down to a pat, so that it comes just routine, right? You train so that it becomes natural that your foot is 10 centimetres off the ground at this point, or half a centimetre at that point or whatever. You train to break it into your body, just like if you get up every morning at six and go to the bathroom and pee.
"That’s all training is – breaking your body in to certain things. I train hard so that when I go into a race – any race – my mind automatically turns on to what I got to do when I need it to. So when I’m in the blocks, it switches on: I got to run now, let’s do this. And everything you’ve worked on just come together.”
We’ll first find out if it does just ’come together’ as planned on August 4, in the 100m heats, then have our definitive answer in the following night’s final – the most exhilarating 10 seconds in the whole Olympic Games. At around 6.50pm on Sunday August 5, a vast chunk of the world will fall silent as Bolt crouches in the blocks and finally finds some focus. Four billion, plus another 80,000 watching live, will have never sounded so quiet – waiting as one for the B of that BANG, the shot heard around the world.
What follows will be short, sharp, and should break down – for Bolt at least – as follows.
Being a big-leggy 6ft 5ins, Bolt is at a distinct disadvantage once the gun goes bang. His starts are often sluggish as he unfurls his giant frame – something he’s been working hard to improve on, along with correcting the flaw that sees his toe graze the floor during his opening stride. Any temptation to fly from the blocks to keep up with the more naturally explosive Blake will no doubt be tempered by the false start that saw him eliminated from the World Championships 100m final – handing Blake his crown. ”That first 40 is crucial,” is as concerned as Bolt will get. ”I know I have to get a good start.”
What’s actually going through his mind during this phase – does he have time to think about anything? ”A lot of that first 40, I’m just looking around me, checking where I’m at, checking who’s doing what and what I need to do to get past. I look around and I just assess, y’know. Do I need to step up or can I relax a bit? Coach tells me I should stop looking around, but it just comes naturally, like an instinct.”
If, at this point, you’re in the stadium and shouting any kind of encouragement at Bolt, don’t waste your breath – he can’t hear you. ”When the gun go, I kinda get like tunnel vision, I guess,” he says. ”The only sound I’m hearing at that point is footsteps hitting the track, but nothing much else. I don’t know why, but I don’t hear much of the crowd.”
If Bolt is in front by the time he hits the 40m mark, all bets are off. ”I know I’m going to win if I’m ahead by then,” he smiles. You might consider it an arrogant smile, were it not so patently true.
And from 40 metres on, his eyes have switched from his rivals to the clock. ”Maybe I shouldn’t be looking at the time, but I can’t help it,” he chuckles. ”It just happens automatically.” And if he’s trailing after 40 metres – something some people want to see? Bolt just shrugs, unperturbed. ”If I am, I am. I’ll just do what I do, step things up.”
The next 20 metres should take Bolt less than two seconds, and see him hitting his oversized stride. In the 2008 Olympic final, he covered 100m in 40-41 strides; the average was 47, and his stride was measured at about a foot longer than everyone else’s. Between 60m and 80m, he’ll expect to hit his peak speed (around 45km/h) and should be stretching his lead.
How does it feel to run faster than any man has ever run before? ”I can’t answer that,” he smiles again. ”I don’t know how it feels, I don’t have time to think ’bout how it feels – it’s just a case of putting one foot in front of the other, going through the motions and doing what comes naturally.”
If all has gone to plan and Bolt is out in front, from 80 metres on some eight billion eyes will be flicking back and forth between the clock and Bolt, hoping to witness something – be it a new world record or an act of quite rampant exhibitionism. In 2008, we saw both – Bolt showboating his way to the line, extending his arms and thumping his chest as he ran the final 20 metres.
Had he finished the race at full tilt and not buggered about, physicists from Oslo’s Institute of Theoretical Astrophysics calculated he could have slashed his time from 9.69s to 9.55s. This time will be different, he promises. This time he swears he’ll take it seriously.
Looking ahead to London, Bolt has previously stated: ”I want to be a legend. The real legends win again and again.” He has also announced that he plans to ”blow people away” with what he’ll achieve. ”I’m still aiming to do that,” he says now. ”When people talk about Usain Bolt, they’re gonna be...” and with this he widens his eyes in disbelief. In basic terms, this must mean reclaiming the golds he won in Beijing in the 100m, plus the 200m and 4x100m?
”Definitely, definitely. I’m going back for my three gold medals, y’know. That’s always been the aim, and that ain’t changed.”
The problem for Bolt – alongside the genuine emergence of Yohan Blake – is that three gold medals won’t be enough. People will consider Bolt to have ’failed’ if he doesn’t win at least the 100m by going faster than any man has ever gone before. In his 2010 autobiography, Usain Bolt: My Story, he predicted he could run 100m in 9.4s.
Experts agree this is possible. If he finds a more explosive start. If he runs with the benefit of a trailing wind. And if he runs at altitude. Only one of those ifs he can control himself, so does he genuinely believe 9.4s to be possible?
He laughs – then the laugh cools to a low chuckle. ”You can’t think about times, y’know. You can never start dreaming about what you might achieve, because when you think about times you forget to relax, forget about doing certain other things because you’re focused on going so fast and you overtry. The key is to think only about winning while running fast – the time takes care of itself.”
So, he's not thought about his winning time? ”I didn’t say that,” he laughs. ”I mean, I should say that I haven’t thought about it. But yeah, I have.”
”And yeah, you can write that I’m still thinking about 9.4s.”
That, then, is the time Bolt is genuinely aiming for on August 5: 9.4s, and you’d be unwise to bet against it. Our time, meanwhile, has apparently expired, judging by the small army of management ’facilitators’ tapping impatiently at their timepieces. Bolt peels himself from the chaise longue, hauls himself back to his feet and thanks us for our time. He shakes hands with everyone and shuffles casually back through the door and off to his next engagement, laughing as he goes.
Clearly, the weight of expectation is killing him.
Usain Bolt wears the new PUMA evoSPEED spike, available from www.startfitness.co.uk