Sportsclubsociety’ Rob Dorsett finds Usain Bolt ‘living life to the full’ ahead of his retirement from the track next year.
After interviewing one of the biggest sports stars of our generation, we arrived at Norman Manley Airport in Kingston, ready to head home; exhausted, exhilarated, and braced, as ever, for the stress of customs analysing every serial number for every specialist bit of camera kit, before we are allowed to leave the country.
With three microphones, a couple of lights, miles of cable etc etc, spread out on the table in front of us, I become aware of a small commotion 100 yards away from us in the terminal. I glance up, and Usain Bolt is surrounded by a small clutch of Jamaicans, pestering him for autographs and selfies. At 6’5″ he stands out – head and shoulders above those crowded around him. He can’t escape the attention.
Ninety minutes later, we are queuing at the gate, ready to board, and there’s a huge figure ahead of us in the same queue: black T-shirt, baseball cap, sunglasses. It’s Bolt again, lining up with us, the plebs, to get on board.
No pomp, no ceremony, no special treatment. No one carrying his bags for him, no bodyguards. Just a normal guy, about to get on a plane for a short holiday in Miami. Only this “normal guy” can run 100m in 9.58 seconds, and has won nine Olympic and 11 World Championship gold medals.
That’s my overriding memory of spending some time with the fastest man who’s ever lived: how approachable, how friendly he is. When Lionel Messi arrived at Manchester Airport a fortnight ago, ready for Barcelona’s Champions League match with Manchester City, all we saw was a tiny, hunched figure rushed through the awaiting crowds at arrivals, flanked by three huge security guards, while scores of fans waited and shouted in vain, with their autograph books and camera phones in waving hands. Bolt is master of a different sport, and is a different man.
“I’m human,” says Bolt, with a shrug. “Sometimes I’m in a good mood, sometimes I’m not. But I try to always go out and put a smile on my face for the fans. I know it means a lot for them just to see me, to touch me and shake my hand.”
But it’s clear his huge fame has affected him. A naturally outgoing, sociable character – “Yeah, I’m a typical Jamaican man. I love reggae music and I love to dance.” – it’s inevitable that he’s had to curtail his social life.
“I try not to let anything bother me,” he explains. “I don’t go out much, unless it’s to the clubs. Everyone wants to touch me, be seen with me. I’ve got used to it. If you’ve followed my career, I’ve always been laid back. It’s who I am. Since I was a kid. It’s just that since my career has got to where it is, it’s been noticed more.”
What has gone largely unnoticed, is just how hard this laid-back Jamaican works to remain at the peak of athletics. In a new documentary in cinemas at the end of the month, we see the reality of life behind the scenes: an elite athlete who has taken to the limit as he sprints over and over again, over a dusty field, sweat pouring from his face as he drags heavy weights behind him; he cuts his calf, as the spikes on his training shoes bite into his skin when he reaches full speed. Plaster applied – on he goes.
Bolt has promised he will retire after the World Championships in London next summer, and he says his body is ready for a break.
“(Training) is the hardest part. Without the training, I could go on forever. But the older you get, the more disciplined you have to be. And, honestly, I don’t think I have the discipline. It’s tough.”
What’s also been tough for Bolt is the tabloid fascination with his private life, since he completed the “Treble-treble” at the Olympics less than three months ago. When Bolt left Rio, he came straight to London, for several days and nights of high-profile partying. There were daily pictures of him in the papers and in social media, with groups of girls at various London venues.
When I see him, back on board the plane bound for America, his girlfriend of two years Kasi Bennett, is sitting alongside him. Harmony restored? It’s hard to tell from the body language.
And so, after the Olympics, life has returned to normal for Bolt. Back in Jamaica, where he tells me he will continue to live, even after he’s retired. Training. Working hard. Planning his race-schedule in the build up to the London World Championships.
But after that? All he knows is he wants to be talked about in the same breath as Pele and Muhammad Ali. A future in politics then, or charity?
“Charity, definitely,” he replies. “But politics, no! People have been trying to get me involved in politics all my life, and it’s not for me. I don’t want to coach (athletics) but I definitely still want to be involved with the sport.
“Seb Coe (the head of the IAAF) came to see me in Jamaica and said ‘we need to find something for you to do’; I will miss the energy of track and field. Anything I do will have to still be in the stadium, so I can feel the energy, and feel like I’m part of the track.”
I quickly get to see what he means. I’m interviewing Bolt at the National Stadium in Jamaica, where in 2002, as a 15-year-old he announced himself into the world conscience by beating athletes three years older than him, to take gold in the World Junior Championships.
My producer, Anton Toloui, suggested we take Bolt out of the formal interview setting, and down onto the track for a more informal chat. And it’s here where Bolt comes alive. This is clearly his domain.
He tells me how, back in 2002, he was so flustered, he put his track shoes on the wrong feet.
“There’s no word to explain how nervous I was on that day. I couldn’t do any stride outs, my legs were weak. I was sweating and my heart was pounding fast. I came out of the tunnel and people started chanting my name “Bolt, Bolt”. I was like “what’s happening?” and all of a sudden I got nervous, weak and confused. But I won. If I can go through that and win in front of my home crowd then strangers are no problem.”
And for Bolt, winning all over the world has been no problem. Like all the very best sportsmen, it seems all too easy for him. If you take into account qualifying rounds in major championships, he’s won a gold medal for every 36 seconds he’s spent on the track. His height, unusual for a sprinter, means he completes 100m in 41 strides, compared with 45 from most of his opponents. It means that he has a huge advantage, once his speed kicks in in the second half of races.
We’re back on the track in Kingston, and I’ve taken him halfway along the 100m back straight. “We’re about 50m here. If you’re 2m behind the guy in the lead at this point, do you know you’ve got him?” I ask.
“Yep,” is the simple response. “I’m always confident. It depends where I’m at but at 50m I can tell if I’m going to win or if I’m going to lose. This is the point my speed really chips in and I start going after the person in front of me so I always know exactly what’s going to happen at this specific point.”
It’s an unusual privilege to get to spend so much time with such a sporting great, when he’s at the peak of his powers. When I tell Bolt this: “What a time to get to talk to you.” He replies, with a huge toothy grin on his face: “What a time to be alive!”
And maybe that best sums him up. Bolt is clearly loving life, and living it to the full.
But the part of Bolt’s life he has loved (and the training he has hated) will soon be at an end. And what’s next for him, after retirement next summer, remains as much a mystery to the man himself, as it is to the wider world.
‘I Am Bolt’ is in cinemas and on digital download from November 28.
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