Usain Bolt is the world’s most famous athlete. His childhood friends, his old teachers and the man himself tell Mick Brown what makes him great and what makes us believe he is the saviour of the Olympic ideal.
The track – though you could hardly call it that – where, as a young pupil at the Waldensia Primary School, Usain Bolt first stretched his legs as a runner is a ragged and bumpy patch of grass, a step away from the single-track road leading to the village of Sherwood Content.
Somebody has marked out four black lines in the grass to serve as lanes, which peter out into a thicket of palm trees.
‘Yeah, that’s where it all started for me,’ Bolt says, when I tell him I was there the previous day. ‘That’s where we had our sports day, and it was really small.’
And can you remember what you were thinking as you ran there?
‘I was thinking about winning.’ Usain Bolt has a way of talking that sounds like a smile – soft, mellifluous and lilting, with a musical laugh that seems always to be waiting to make itself heard.
He is 6ft 5in, lean, muscular, like polished mahogany – beautiful – and he comes into the room of the Kingston hotel where we meet with the loose-limbed grace of a gazelle, seeming not so much to walk as to flow like mercury.
He is dressed in track trousers, a T-shirt, Puma shoes, and he is wearing a very large and very expensive Hublot wristwatch – one of his many sponsors – which he will later ensure is in view when he poses for photographs.
The school stands on a hill overlooking the running track – a single-storey brick building, not much changed since Bolt was a pupil there.
Although in those days it had pit latrines and now there are proper lavatories, paid for by Bolt – the most trifling of the many acts of munificence the wealthiest track athlete in the world has bestowed upon his childhood home.
The huge mural painted on the side of the school – that wasn’t there either.
It shows Bolt striking the victory pose that has become his trademark, and which the world knows as the ‘lightning bolt’, although Bolt himself calls it ‘To Di World’, inspired by a Jamaican dancehall move.
It’s the pose he struck when the planet first woke up to his explosive brilliance as a sprinter at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, setting three world records, in the 100m and 200m (becoming the first man in Olympic history to win both in world- record times) and the 4 X 100m relay.
We are also familiar with the stance from London, where he became the first athlete in history to win gold medals in consecutive Olympics in those same three events.
And he’ll doubtless strike it again in Rio if he succeeds in his attempt to achieve the so-called ‘triple-triple’ – a feat that it is hard to imagine any athlete ever surpassing.
“What I always wanted,” Bolt says, “was to be great.” And what does greatness mean to you? He thinks about this.
‘For me, it means being remembered. People talk about sports all the time, and I want to be a part of that conversation, you know what I mean? When they talk about greats it’s always Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, Pelé. I want to be a part of that conversation so when they talk about the greats they say Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, Pelé, Usain Bolt.’
Don’t people say that already?
‘Yeah, but I’m still running. I’m still fresh in their mind. I want that when I retire I’m so great that you can’t forget me, because you can never forget what Ali and all these guys have done. They have really stamped their mark on history. That’s what I want to do, and I think this Olympics will help me to do that.”
His voice is almost a whisper. “People tell me, you’re a legend… Yeah, but this Olympics will do it.”
The road to Bolt’s childhood home in the parish of Trelawny curves up and away from Jamaica’s northern coastline, bumping over ruts and potholes, through thick forest, past small holdings growing bananas, plantain and papaya, and the Assembly of Yahweh church, to arrive at last at Sherwood Content – a village of small whitewashed bungalows and gaily painted wooden shacks.
The house where Bolt grew up, and where his family still live, is conspicuously the largest in the village – two storeys, recently modernised, with a large wall, open gates, a 4WD parked in front.
Bolt’s father, Wellesley, and his mother, Jennifer, ran a general store in the village. He has an older half-sister, Sherine, and younger half-brother, Sadiki.
Trelawny has produced a disproportionately high number of star athletes – Warren Weir, an Olympic bronze medallist, and seven-time Olympic medallist Veronica Campbell-Brown among them.
Various theories have been advanced to explain this: genetic inheritance from the days of slavery; a hilly terrain; something in the water that adds nutrients to the locally grown yam – Bolt’s favourite theory.
Whatever it might be, Bolt had it in abundance. All the primary schools in Trelawny would gather for their annual sports day at the William Knibb Memorial High School in the town of Falmouth.
“You could see this tall young boy – just raw natural talent,” remembers Lorna Thorpe, who was then head of sport at William Knibb. “The principal at the time decided to give him a scholarship because we didn’t want to lose him.”
William Knibb is a series of barrack-like buildings painted in a vivid purple – the school colours.
Above its entrance is a sign bearing the motto ‘Ignorance is enslavement, knowledge is freedom’ and photographs of Jamaican heroes: Paul Bogle, the Baptist deacon who in the 19th century agitated for the rights of all people in Jamaica, and was hanged in 1865 by the British authorities for his pains; Alexander Bustamante, the country’s first prime minister following independence; and… Usain Bolt.
“We thought since he came from the school he qualified,” the acting principal, Lorna Jackson, explains.
Bolt, she remembers, was only “an average student”, but a very popular one, with staff and his fellow pupils.
“A happy-go-lucky guy. Everyone liked Usain. I remember in grade nine there was a girl, there was some liking going on there, and she was helping him with his writing. And then we were talking in class about girlfriends and boyfriends and someone said Usain had a girlfriend at a neighbouring school. I said, ‘don’t write anything else for him!’
“I gave trouble at school,” Bolt says with a smile.
“But people know that’s how I was, so I wasn’t bad trouble, if you know what I mean? I was that person that people know was always smiling.”
Lorna Jackson taught Bolt Spanish.
“In fact I remember him coming back to the school and telling the children, learn your Spanish because I remember Miss Jackson saying to me, ‘you, Usain, are going to be going places and you need to make sure you learn Spanish’. And he was telling them he went down to South America and he saw some beautiful girls, and it came back to him that if he’d paid more attention to his lessons he would have been able to communicate better.”
She laughs. ‘But I don’t think he needs Spanish or anything else now to interact – he has that aura.”
Bolt had no special interest in running. He loved playing football and cricket, his great hero the Pakistan fast bowler Waqar Younis.
“Track was just something I was doing because I was good at it, and because I was winning it was, “You should do this.”’ He shrugs. “So, all right…”
Thorpe, whom Bolt calls ‘my second mother’, recalls when it came to training, his coach would often have to send someone off to fetch Bolt, who had ducked out to play cricket or football. “We’d always say, leave the football alone, man; you’ve got a gold mine in your legs!”
She remembers when Bolt was 13 and competing in the national school championships in Kingston. He was staying in a hotel near the stadium.
“He was in the 200m finals. When he looked at the time he realised the race was about to start. He ran straight from where we were staying, across the road, into the stadium and to the starting line, and set off on the race. He’d been running for too long, and because of that, he didn’t win. That’s the only race I ever saw him lose.”
In 2002, aged 15, Bolt made his debut at the World Junior Championships in Kingston, Jamaica, where he won the 200m, making him the youngest world- junior gold medallist.
That same year he received the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) Rising Star Award.
Offers of sports scholarships began pouring in from American colleges. “I still have them in my drawer,” Thorpe says.
America was the customary destination for young Jamaican athletes, with a customary result: over-training, over- running and burning out. But Jamaica had just opened its own IAAF High Performance Training Centre; Asafa Powell had turned down offers from America and decided to stay in his birthplace. And Bolt made the same decision.
“People said, you can stay but it would be better if you go overseas; they wanted me to go to some cold state, and I was, nah, can’t do the cold,” he says with a laugh. “Really, I just wanted to stay close to my family.”
“He would describe himself as a mama’s boy,” says his oldest friend, Nugent Walker – NJ, as everyone knows him.
Bolt admits at the start of his career he took his talent for granted. Running came easily, but training was hard. At his Olympics debut, in Greece in 2004, he was eliminated in the first round. The Jamaican press rounded on their golden boy for his lack of self-discipline.
“The first three years of my senior career it was like, whatever – I didn’t really care, I was just running,” he says.
He began working with a new coach, Glen Mills.
“He said listen, you need to get serious. You can’t be an Olympic champion and not train hard, and I started listening and understanding. That’s when I started making goals for myself and working towards being the best.”
It was the 100m final at the 2008 Olympics, in Beijing, that would make him a global star.
Watching film of the race now, it still seems barely credible. Bolt is slow out of the starting blocks, but by 50m he is already striding into a clear lead, and by 80m he is so far ahead of the field he is able to drop his arms to his sides, thump himself on the chest, and glance over his shoulder to the chasing pack, as if to say: ‘Where are you, guys?’
He not so much sprints over the finishing line as dances over it. It is without question the greatest 100m performance run in Olympics history. His adjusted time was 9.69 seconds.
The following year, in Berlin, Bolt ran the 100m in 9.58 seconds. It continues to stand as the world record.
By any normal reckoning, Bolt should not be a sprinter at all. At 6ft 5in he is too tall, his legs too long, for short-distance running.
Dr Peter Weyand, a leading physiologist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, and an expert on the science of sprinting, has described him as ‘a freak; he defies the laws of biology’.
His demeanour, too, is unlike any other athlete’s. Consider the few moments immediately before any major race, as the television camera pans across the world’s fastest runners, uniformly caught in the default position of tense, pent-up macho aggression.
And then there is Bolt, grooving on the line, as if he’s hearing some private music in his head, blowing kisses into the camera, his fingers stirring the air above his head, then twiddling in the shape of a spider dangling from a web, before drawing a heart shape and throwing it to the crowd.
Only on the blocks does he seem to focus, crossing himself – “His family are religious people,” Thorpe says, “and they brought him up that way” – then pointing his finger heavenward, as if to say, ‘Me, Lord!’ ‘I’m prepared as much as you can be,’ Bolt says.
“When you get to the line, it makes no sense in you worrying any more, so all you gotta do is just relax and go in and execute.
“My coach always talks to me about muscle memory: if you practise something enough it becomes part of you; it just happens.”
He snaps his fingers. “You know what I mean? You practise your start, you practise your run in a certain way, so when you get to the Olympic finals all you have to do is go out and run, pretty much. And everything will come back. But if you go out there thinking, “I need to do this,” or worry about that – overthinking things – then you start making mistakes.
“So, for me, the things that I do at the start line are what makes me relax and not think about the start, which is my biggest issue. That’s the poorest part of my race, because of my height. That’s why they say tall people never do the 100m. But I’ve worked so hard on it, as long as I get it 60-70 per cent correct I’ll be all right.”
It doesn’t seem to matter, I joke. It seems that he can give someone a 10m start and still beat them.
“Depends on the field… The only thing I try to tell myself is listen, listen, listen. And then when he say “set”, I just listen. Because the moment you think about anything else, that’s the moment it’s going to go wrong.”
He has false-started only once, and was disqualified, from the men’s 100m at the 2011 World Championships in South Korea, after coming out of his blocks well before the gun.
"And that’s because I wasn’t focused, I wasn’t myself. My mind was all over the place.”
Other than that, he says, he has not lost a major race in the past eight years. Perhaps his greatest enemy, I suggest, is a belief in his own invincibility.
“I never look at myself like that. Never. Because it’s a race – anything can go wrong. My coach always explains to me, you go out there every day to win, but never feel like you can’t lose. The moment you start thinking along that line, something’s going to go wrong. I mean, I’m confident that I’m going to win, but I never think, ‘No one can beat me.’”
Not only is Bolt the greatest athlete in the world. He is also the most universally loved. He hasn’t just beaten the world, he has charmed it, by the simple virtue of being himself.
“One thing about Usain,’ says his Irish agent, Ricky Simms, “if there’s two people watching him or two million people watching him, he behaves in the same way. He genuinely likes people.
"If you’re walking on the street and he sees a group of 10 kids he’ll always stop and sign autographs. I wish I could take credit for all the marketing-genius things he does, but it comes naturally to him. He’s just a very straightforward and likeable guy.”
In a sport that has been plagued by revelations and controversy over the use of performance-enhancing drugs, Bolt’s integrity, his unimpeachable character, assume a monumental significance.
It is as if the whole reputation of sprinting rests on his shoulders. It would be a bad day for the human spirit, one thinks, if Usain Bolt were to fall from grace. But if this is pressure, Bolt doesn’t show it.
“To me it’s not a pressure. It’s me being me. I’m going out there, I’m representing the sport, I’m representing myself, I’m representing the country – and that’s just it. Because I was brought up a certain way, you work for what you want, you know what I mean?”
By Bolt’s standards, 2015 was a poor season. Troubled by injuries, he had been forced to withdraw from two races, and when he came up against Justin Gatlin – the American sprinter who has served two drug bans in his career – at the World Championships in Beijing, Gatlin was favourite to win.
Bolt’s victory, against the odds, was greeted with a collective sigh of relief as a triumph of good over evil. Bolt, the BBC commentator Steve Cram exulted, had ‘saved the sport’.
Bolt says he has no problem with Gatlin.
“If they [the IAAF] say he can run, then he can run. I have no issue running with anybody, because I’m gonna go and I’m gonna work hard, and whatever happens happens. As long as the rule says it’s OK for them to run then I can’t complain, because that’s the rule.”
But he takes a different view of Tyson Gay, the American sprinter who tested positive for banned anabolic steroids in 2013 and was banned for one year by the US Anti-Doping Agency after co-operating with the organisation.
Gay was stripped of the silver medal he won at the London 2012 Olympics. Upon returning to the track in 2014, Gay said he felt ‘welcomed with open arms’.
Not by Bolt. Gay, he remarked, should have been ‘kicked out of the sport’ for doping, and he described the decision to reinstate him as “the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.
“You have to understand,” he now tells me, “it felt like he [Gay] cut me deeper. It was like the relationship I had with him… It wasn’t like a bond or anything, but it was so competitive. I respected him so much as an athlete, because of the way he runs, the way he works, and over the years a rivalry built up and it got so big, and I really enjoyed it.
"I love competition, so he was my biggest rival and he made me feel like when I go out there I have to be at the top of my game at all times and I have to be focused, I have to be ready. And then when I heard about the drugs scandal I was like, come on… ‘It was like, you have a son and you send him to college every year, and all of a sudden he does something bad and he drops out of school, and you find out that all the A’s he was getting he was cheating. That’s how I felt. Maybe over time I’ll move past it, but it bothered me – really, really bothered me.”
He admits he and Gay “don’t really talk”.
A cloud has hovered over Jamaican athletics regarding the question of drugs since 2013, when six Jamaican athletes tested positive for banned performance-enhancing drugs or diuretics that mask them, raising questions about the rigour of the country’s testing procedures.
Shortly after my meeting with Bolt, it was reported that Nesta Carter, one of the Jamaican 4 x 100m relay team at the 2008 Olympics, had allegedly tested positive for banned substances after a re-analysis of blood and urine samples.
Unless Carter is able to clear his name, all four members of the relay team could be stripped of their gold medals for that event. (Bolt was quoted as saying the positive test was ‘heartbreaking, because over the years you’ve worked hard to accumulate gold medals and worked hard to be a champion, but it’s just one of those things. Things happen in life, so when it’s confirmed or whatever, if I need to give back my gold medal I’d have to give it back, it’s not a problem.’)
Bolt is probably the most drug-tested athlete in the world – and happy to be so.
‘I have no issue with being drug-tested because it’s better. I remember in Beijing [for the 2015 World Championships], every other day they were drug-testing us, and because they were taking blood also people were saying, “Oh you can’t come so often.”
’But I was like, ‘Listen, they’re doing their job.’ Yes, it might be awkward for them to come every other day, but they feel the need to do this to make sure everything is good for the sport, and I have no issue with that. It makes sure the championship is cleaned up. If you’re taking drugs and you see them coming every two days, that would scare anybody off. So I don’t mind being drug-tested .”
Athletes are paid for the races they run.
“When Usain broke his first world record in 2008,” Simms says, ‘and before he won the Olympics in Beijing, I remember I sat down with meeting organisers and told them what I thought he was worth, and I was run out of the room as being this crazy Irishman. We’ve quadrupled the fee since then. But TV from all over the world will come when Usain is running; he makes a huge difference to an event.”
The bulk of his earnings comes from endorsements – around a dozen regional and global partnerships in all.
According to Forbes, Bolt’s annual revenue is around $32.5 million: $2.5 million from his winnings, $30 million from endorsements.
Some way behind Cristiano Ronaldo’s $88million and Roger Federer’s $67.8 million, but sufficient to make Bolt far and away the wealthiest track and field star in the world. And that does not include his business interests away from sport.
He has kept the same small group of friends and advisors around him throughout his career. NJ, whom he has known since primary school – ‘I guess I was scared and decided to be friends with the tallest guy in the class,’ NJ says with a laugh – now looks after Bolt’s business interests in Jamaica.
He has been with his coach, Mills, since 2004, and with Simms since he was 16. One of Simms’s initial tasks was to negotiate Bolt’s first professional sponsorship deal, with Puma.
It says much for Bolt that he made it a condition of the contract that the company supply shoes and kit to William Knibb, which they have continued to do to this day. “Nobody told Usain to do that,” NJ says. “It was all on him.”
Everyone agrees Bolt has never forgotten where he comes from. His foundation has provided a bus and computers for his old school, and rebuilt a health centre in Sherwood Content.
And he insists any commercial in which he appears should be shot in Jamaica, using a local crew. “It’s good for the country,” he says, “and also expands the brand of Jamaica.”
“Jamaica has kept him very grounded,” NJ says.
“People see the very confident athlete on the track and some people might misunderstand that. But he wants to be the best person he can; his parents instilled the key values: respecting people, caring for people, he’s kind to a fault – too kind some might say. I don’t think he realises he’s a celebrity. One time we were staying in France and he came down to the lobby and there were all these people outside, and he said to the bellman, who are they waiting for? The bellman said, they’re waiting for you.”
Bolt has a girlfriend, whom he has been dating for two years, “but I’m not going to tell you who she is”, he says.
“I want to keep it small for now, because I know when it gets out there’s going to be a lot of things to say, and I told her she can’t handle it. Because I’ve been through the media. I understand how you guys are – especially the British media.”
The Guru Coach Mills pic.twitter.com/pDCP0u4dYl— Usain St. Leo Bolt (@usainbolt) July 28, 2016
He laughs. “You know that’s true! The tabloid media, I should say. Those guys really opened my eyes. Every culture is different. Jamaican culture is different, when you look at women and men having more than one… It’s different.
"I’ve noticed that in Britain, every famous person, as soon as they get famous, they have to get married – like, it’s a rule. And I’m like, that’s not fair!”
But is that true?
“Yes! Like, Rooney got married so young – all the footballers that are English, as soon as they get really famous they have to get married. And I think it’s unfair to them.
“You get famous, there’s so much pressure of girls wanting you. And for you to get married at 21, you have not lived one bit. It’s hard for you to stay with one woman because girls are literally just throwing themselves at you; and then you have the girls that the tabloids encourage pretty much to try to get with you.
"And that’s unfair to us guys – it’s hard to say no, you know what I mean? So I’ve learnt from you guys. That’s the expectation. If you’re famous, you need to have a family – that’s what they need to sell in Britain, I don’t know why. It’s respectability. But I’m not English! I’m Jamaican!
"We have a totally different culture, so you can’t judge me based on your culture.”
And how would he describe the Jamaican culture?
“We’re laid-back. We dance, we live our lives, we have our fun. And then when we get older, then it’s time to settle down and have a family. I want to get married. Because my parents are married. I’ve thought about it, but I know I’m not going to get married before 35.”
Bolt said in the past that he intends to retire after the 2017 World Championships. He talks of wanting to remain in athletics in an ambassadorial role – “Travelling around, encouraging kids and being part of it in any way that I can help to continue building the sport.”
His investments in real estate and other businesses in Jamaica, and his ongoing endorsements, will be sufficient to keep him rich for the rest of his life. Simms talks about opportunities in film and television. “He’s very comfortable in front of the camera.
“Usain,” Simms adds with a laugh, “thinks that he’s going to be playing football for Man United.” But for the moment there is only one thing on Bolt’s mind. Ask if he is confident about his prospects this month in Brazil, and he replies simply, “You always have to be confident.”
At 29 he is at the upper end of an athlete’s prime age.
‘My coach always says when you get to 28, 29 that’s it – you can maintain, but he doesn’t think you can go faster. But in my case, he says, I’ve never really pushed the barrier and got to my full potential.” He laughs.
So that great enemy, age, has not yet imposed itself?
“No, I think all the guys who are my main threat are close to my age or older than me. The younger guys are running good but I don’t think they’re quite at the level that we are; they need time. So I’m not really worried. And I always say to myself, if I run 9.6 then I have no issue. That’s what my coach says – if you run 9.6, because no one is running 9.6, you should do it. So that’s how we always look at things. If I get myself into 9.6 shape I should be OK.”
And you believe you can do that? “I always believe.”
The day after my interview with Bolt, Bolt was shooting a commercial for Hublot at the running track at the University of the West Indies – the UWI Usain Bolt Track, to give it its proper name.
There had been a barbecue the previous night, and the clean-up crew was still at work an hour and a half after filming was due to begin.
Bolt arrived in a BMW driven by NJ and disappeared into a trailer, before being called out and making his way across to the starting line, where the film crew were readying themselves.
The temperature was soaring into the 90s. Wearing his Jamaican running strip, Bolt settled himself in a camping chair, shaded by an umbrella held aloft by an assistant, his legs stretched out, scrutinising his mobile phone.
At length, he took his place at the blocks and assumed the starting position, staring down into the camera.
The astute observer would have noticed two things not quite right with the picture: he was wearing trainers, not running spikes; and he was wearing a watch. He held the starting position, his fingers splayed on the hot track. ‘Son of a bitch!’ He stood up, frantically cooling his hands.
Somebody produced a Jamaican flag, for the next shot, and Bolt threw it over his shoulders. The shoot was two hours behind schedule. The heat was crippling. Tempers were beginning to fray. But Usain Bolt was as serene as a cloud. Somebody switched on an industrial-sized fan.
Bolt took his place, the flag billowing behind him, he laughed into the camera and began to sing. ‘I believe I can fly…’
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