Although many of the current readership may be too young to remember the event, my first memories of athletics come from the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. I was mesmerised particularly by the actions of one Michael Johnson as he stunned the world with his 200m performance, streaking away from the pack to beat his previous World Record and finish in 19.32s, a time that, according to some commentators, would never be beaten.
While this was going on, a certain Usain St. Leo Bolt was taking his first steps on the tartan of his local track. Asked how this came to be, he told me, “My cricket coach at school thought I was fast and suggested I take up track and field, the rest is history.” Michael Johnson was an inspiration for him too, as he was “dominant in the 200 and 400 metres at the time”, but unlike every other fan, this was the man who would eventually surpass his idol.
Indeed, that moment sits a lot more vividly in the memory. Before the Beijing Olympics in 2008 there was already a buzz; Usain had broken the World 100m record in New York in May and was also the world leader in the 200m, but the world wasn’t quite ready for what happened next. In a frankly ridiculous week, Bolt broke the 100m and 200m World Records and ran the third leg in the Jamaican relay team that beat the 4x100m record. Quite simply the world of athletics was changed forever. Commentators were aghast at how he could showboat his way to victory, famously pumping his chest and pulling up while still running faster than anyone ever had before. They didn’t know what to think about this ‘freak’, at six foot five much taller than the traditional sprinter but blessed with a natural grace and speed of turnover never seen before. As Michael Johnson said, “he doesn’t run with style. He doesn’t need to.” He was just a man built by nature to run fast.
And then, barely a year later, he did it all again in Berlin, breaking both his individual records, the 200m victory in particular being “the best race I’ve ever run. It is always exciting to break my own record and it felt good.”
For someone to appear so suddenly there were obviously doubts as to his legitimacy as an athlete and the dreaded spectre of doping was raised time and again in the press. But although the rise was mercurial, Bolt had pedigree, and those in the know were less surprised by his success. He became World Junior (Under 20) Champion at the age of just 15 in 2002, following that up with the World Under 18 title a year later before becoming the first teenager to dip under the 20 second barrier for 200m. Indeed, the Berlin final was actually his third appearance in a World Championship final, following a silver in 2007 and an injury-afflicted last place in 2005. There had been deflated periods: injuries, a car accident and his famed relaxed attitude to competing and training taking their toll, but this was definitely a man who had been earmarked for greatness.
On the subject of his many successes, Bolt told me he valued titles more than records, saying, “I am always happy to win, but the records are a bonus. World Championship medals are special but the Olympic medals have a special sophistication to them.” He also appreciates the opportunities his fame gives him, as “I am able to meet almost anyone I want and I get to go to great locations across the world.”
Although the 100m is the marquee event, it is not his first choice. “I love the 200 metres and it has been my favourite event for a long time,” he told me, although ironically that would appear to be where the greatest dangers to his success lie. Yohan Blake, his training partner, ran the second fastest time ever near the end of the 2011 season, while seemingly at a canter (although that is often the case with the greatest of sprinters, as evidenced by Bolt’s languid style). On feeling the pressure of rival athletes, he tells me, “I take all my competitors seriously and it doesn’t matter whether they are from my country or not,” adding “it is a good thing for Jamaica to be able to have some of the top sprinters in the world.”
Looking to the future, the most pressing event on the horizon is the London Olympics, where Bolt is “aiming to successfully defend my titles and become a legend in the sport”. If he were to achieve this aim, the legendary status, if it were ever in doubt, would be guaranteed. He would become the first man to retain the Olympic 200m and only the second after Carl Lewis to retain the 100m, both made a lot tougher by the emergence of the aforementioned Blake, but by no means out of the question.
Beyond that, there are many choices and challenges ahead. Come 2013, the World Athletics Championships heads to Moscow, where he will be aiming to eradicate all memories of his false start in the final last year, the one blemish on his CV, as well as becoming the first man to claim a hat-trick of 200m titles, something not even Johnson could manage. Then there are other events: his PB over 400m would have had him as best in Britain last year, and he could doubtless go faster with dedicated training, while world long jump record holder Mike Powell has earmarked him as someone who could go over the almost mythical nine metre barrier. For a man so prodigiously physically gifted, every discipline almost seems like just another excuse to embarrass the competition.
And in terms of post-track career? “There are some things that are already in train. I have a book out (My Story: 9.58), I own a restaurant and there are some other plans in place.” Asked how tempting a bit of study at Oxford sounds, potentially after his retirement as a professional athlete, says, “the study sounds like fun”, which suggests to me that he probably hasn’t quite understood what it would entail. Perhaps OUAC will have to rely on someone a little slower to anchor future Varsity relay teams.
With regard to other sports, he tells me that he watches football and cricket. “I did play some cricket and I play for fun, when I have the opportunity,” he explains.
Indeed, in a way, Bolt and other Caribbean sprint superstars are filling the void left by the previous generation of West Indian cricketing greats. Asafa Powell, Blake and Bolt inspire the younger generation in the way Viv Richards and Brian Lara used to (his younger brother Sadiki is in fact an aspiring cricketer, although not a fast bowler). Interestingly, when asked for a sportsman or woman he admires, he offers the fairly niche answer of “Ruud van Nistelrooy”. If anyone would care to read more into that and get back to me, they are most welcome.
Finally, I ask for advice for others who want to be like him, or even achieve a tenth of what he has been able to. Given that this is a man who adorns billboards worldwide (currently sporting a natty blonde Branson beard for one campaign) and who has twice been awarded Laureus Sportsman of the Year, his answer is refreshingly down to earth: “Work hard, dedicate yourself to give your best at all times and enjoy what you do. The results will always be in your favour.” It may not come as easily to the rest of us, but you can’t argue with that maxim.