Usain Bolt hands on hips posing ()Usain Bolt hands on hips posing () © Copyright

The Last dance

Can the Olympic golden boy make the Earth move one more time in Rio? We get inside his head to find out

Scores of international media representatives cram inside a tiny conference room in a London hotel.

The majestic Tower Bridge is just a few metres away, and a commotion at the doorway followed by a chorus of camera clicks suggest that another icon had entered the space.

Usain Bolt stands head and shoulders above his peers in every way possible. In our world, he’s the centre of the universe – a mega-sized magnet that draws us all in like little scraps of metal.

“Am I worth it?” he asks almost in disbelief after a journo queries whether the six-time Olympic champion merits a tax break when he competes in the UK.

For some, he is simply a showman with speed, so why should he? For others, the Jamaican is so much more than that. He is the pulse of the Olympic Games, and the beating heart of track and field. He is something to believe in. Money is not the thing that keeps him awake at night.

Usain Bolt ()

 

To understand what drives Usain Bolt, you have to understand the nature of the man, who speaks time and time again about a race from another time. One with no real significance, that took place decades ago on a country slope which doubled as a playing field. This race would thread the very fibre of the man and the athlete who is so widely celebrated today.

It was 1995, and the eight-year-old got his first taste of defeat. It was bitter and hard to digest. For that youngster, it fuelled a burning desire to win – to always win. It channelled a combustive competitive edge that would lift him to heights once barely even imaginable.

If you talk to him often enough, you’ll realise too that he’s still a little pissed about that loss, as he is about all of the few he has suffered as a professional.

With the Rio Olympic Games now just a few strides away, Bolt will again have the full attention of the world.

With back-to-back wins in the 100m, 200m and 4x100m already secured from his stops in Beijing in 2008 and London four years later, Bolt stands on the brink of another historical accomplishment.

His target and ambition are clear.

“I want to be remembered as one of the greatest sportsmen to ever live,” Bolt tells FS in Kingston, Jamaica. “Not just a track star. I feel winning three more gold medals in Rio will help solidify my legendary status, so that’s what’s driving me right now.”

Usain Bolt World Youth Championships ()

 

Faster than kryptonite

In 2009 Tyson Gay happened to break the world record in Berlin, too (it was just unfortunate that it was at the same time Bolt set a new one); Justin Gatlin has posted faster 100m times than Bolt consistently over the past two years; while at their peak, his own countrymen Asafa Powell and Yohan Blake duelled with him and at times looked like they could usurp him. There has always been a Lex Luthor to Bolt’s Superman, although the actor playing Lex changes. All four have beaten him once, and Blake did it twice at Jamaican Trials in 2012. But it’s never happened on the big stage.

The major storyline going into these Olympics is one that has pushed Bolt right to the wire. Justin Gatlin had the year of his life in 2015, while Bolt struggled. When they crouched in the starting blocks for the world 100m final in Beijing, Gatlin was many people’s favourite to take the gold.

Bolt held him off – just – and then beat him more emphatically over 200m later that week. The battle lines have been drawn. Bolt is back to being everyone’s favourite, but Gatlin is seriously fast.

For all his huffing and puffing, Gatlin has only beaten the Jamaican on two occasions: in the 100m at a low-key Rome Diamond League meet in 2013, and in the 200m at the World Championships in Helsinki back in 2005.

That Beijing beat-down last year was the latest reminder of what is now a well-established fact – when the lights shine brightest, so does Bolt.

Usain Bolt face-on ()

 

Sprinters are chest-beating alpha males. Every single one of them must believe they are the greatest. Praise for opponents is rare, but an exasperated Tyson Gay offered this in the immediate aftermath of Bolt’s Beijing win.

This is coming from a man whose life would be considerably more spectacular had Bolt never been born. It would have been Gay who rewrote the record books in Berlin in 2009.

“At the end of the day… hats off to him,” said Gay, sweating from his endeavours. “He’s a tough competitor. He pulled it out. He’s a man of his word: a championship performer.”

Bolt loves the big show, and his attitude so far this year has been bullish. Those who have watched him since he was a kid can see the warning signs – he is going to do something special in Rio. Something really special.

“I really want to run under 19 seconds,” he says. He craves that one final otherworldly flourish to his career, and the man who loves a bit of drama is absolutely itching to get to Rio.

Save for that lone false start in the 100m final at the 2011 World Championships, Bolt has been flawless in finals since the Beijing Olympics, and that air of invincibility is back in the big Jamaican.

At a high-profile clash in Kingston in early June involving Blake and Powell, Bolt stopped the clock in 9.88 seconds to comfortably beat the field, despite a near fall while coming out of the blocks.

Usain Bolt training ()

 

“It [the 9.88] means that I’m in very good nick,” Bolt says. “As I said, the more I run, the faster I’ll get, the smoother my running will become – and I’ll take it from there”

It’s an ominous sign for Gatlin and the rest, who must already be doubting their chances of unseating Bolt in Brazil. Although major doubts have surfaced about Bolt’s fitness following his hamstring tear at the Jamaican Olympic trials, it’s hard to believe the champion will not be on the starting blocks in Rio.

IN SICKNESS AND IN HEALTH

The Bolt versus Gatlin collision course takes on added significant and emotional value given Gatlin’s soiled past, which involves a four-year doping ban.

It was a major sub-plot going into last year’s world championships, when the possibility of a Gatlin gold medal led some to question its would-be impact on a sport already reeling from doping controversies.

There’s little question that the topic will return in Rio, but for Bolt, it has always been a question he has had to face and a doubt he has had to remove from the suspicious gaze of a world that isn’t always convinced.

Today he is heralded as the saviour of the sport, perhaps even the Olympic movement. But it wasn’t too long ago that he too was subjected to the scrutiny and snickering that follows others.

Usain Bolt hands on hips posing ()

 

It is probably why he has been so unwilling to accept the cape that has been draped around his neck.

“It’s not just me,” Bolt explains. “Other athletes are trying to keep the sport in a positive light, it’s all of our responsibility to do what we can.”

Still, there is no escaping the fact that of the six fastest men in history (those who have gone 9.78 or faster), Bolt is the only athlete to have never been implicated in a doping scandal.

His is a responsibility that he can never outrun, and he knows it.

Bolt has a real fear of ingesting something illegal, and Coach Mills explains the toll it has on his body.

“It pains my heart when people try to question his accomplishments because I see how much he suffers. I see how often he turns up to training extremely sick because he won’t take medication for fear it may contain a banned substance.”

The Bolt factor

Bolt’s universal popularity is at the very essence of his character: a virtuous circle of winning. It feeds his desire to put on a show, which feeds the clamour for him to succeed, which feeds his desire to train like a lunatic, which helps him redefine the realms of possibility.

Bolt’s universal popularity is the reason why meet promoters shell out upwards of £260,000 to get him to run at their events. It’s the reason he earns $30m a year from endorsements.

Usain Bolt at OktoberFest ()

 

A regular on the Kingston nightlife scene, he has partied everywhere from New York City’s swankiest establishments to Mayfair and then, when they eventually stopped serving, the streets of Clapham, south London.

Bolt is sure to take that big grin of his inside Rio’s finest clubs.

“I never let things get to me or bother me,” he says. “I like to enjoy whatever I am doing. I work too hard to not have some fun as well.”

And he certainly knows how. Bolt’s ability to remove himself from pressure and tension before a race is largely down to this happy-go-lucky mentality that seems to give him an added advantage when he lines up against his opponents.

A fist bump with a volunteer here, a little fooling around with the crowd there: Bolt is a picture of confidence before his races. In his head and in those on the shoulders of some of his rivals, Bolt is already the winner, long before the starting gun has been fired.

Despite his success, his work ethic has not dropped. Sure, he likes to go wild, but when it’s time to knuckle down, track and field’s poster boy is also among the hardest workers in the sport.

For six days a week, he digs in on the track. For two hours a day, three days a week, he unleashes in the gym, all so that his name will live on.

Usain Bolt topless with drinks ()

 

Legacy

Jamaican track and field history is steeped in 400m success, pioneered by Olympic standouts Arthur Wint and Herb McKenley, world champion Bert Cameron and regular 4x400m success.

Bolt not only changed Jamaica, he has changed the face of sport forever.

His legacy is clear: six Olympic gold medals, 11 world championships, triple world record holder.

But what does the man himself believe is his greatest legacy?

“I want people to believe that anything is possible. Don’t think about limits,” he says. “I want people to see the legacy of never stop believing in their abilities, even when the world is saying it’s not possible.”

That spark that engulfed a hyperactive eight-year-old from Sherwood Content has now spread across to every corner of the globe. The world knows what Usain Bolt stands for.

Such is his influence; such is the magnitude of his impact. He changed our understanding of what is possible.

THAT is greatness. 

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