World's fastest man Usain Bolt confident his 'god-given talent' will make him a legend in Rio
With Bolt looking to become the first athlete to win three golds at three Olympics, the Jamaican sprinter tells David Cox what it takes to be the best in the world
The men's Olympic 100m final. An event so iconic that when the eight fastest men in the world poise themselves on their blocks at around 2.25am UK time on Monday, the whole of Rio will come to a halt.
Press conferences pause, athletes break from their carefully honed routines, and across the world an estimated 2 billion people will watch with bated breath.
The tension is palpable in all, except for one man.
“I don't really get nervous,” Usain Bolt says, reclining by the side of the track as he limbers up and stretches ahead of a training session. “This is my job, I do it every day.”
Bolt sounds slightly surprised at the question but then admitting vulnerability to butterflies or the odd palpitation in the call room isn't really his style. The six-time Olympic champion typically refers to the angst-ridden moments before the biggest race on the planet in the plain, matter of fact tones of an IT technician describing an afternoon spent wrestling with the server.
Bolt has after all turned running faster than anyone else in history into a matter of routine.
Rio will be his fourth and final Olympic Games. He turns 30 on the day of the closing ceremony, and intends to retire after racing the 100m at next year's World Championships. He arrived in Brazil earlier this week knowing that whatever happens, he has defined his sport for almost a decade in a way that perhaps no sprinter before or after, can hope to match.
And all with an air of exuberance which has transformed the men's sprint events. Justin Gatlin, the 100m gold medallist at Athens 2004 who was banned for four years after testing positive for testosterone, and Bolt's biggest threat in Rio, takes the traditional approach. Gatlin prowls behind his blocks, posturing, chest-puffing and glaring at his rivals. But this has never been Bolt's style.
“The only pressure I have is the pressure I put on myself,” he explains. “I don't think about what anyone else expects of me. It's why I am not one of those athletes who gets all quiet and serious before a race. I prefer to not think about it and just interact with people as normal. I like to look around me and see what's going on, where the other guys are, what they're doing.”
Bolt has never lacked confidence once his abundant talent became evident. As a 15 year old competing at the World Junior Championships in 2002, he was so nervous he ran with his shoes on the wrong feet, but after winning 200m gold in a time of 20.61s, he told himself that he would never again be afflicted by such self-doubt.
Just two years later, he turned down multiple track and field scholarships from universities in the United States, believing that Jamaica offered him the best opportunities to succeed. “You know, people often ask the secrets to our success but we have an amazing sprinting culture, great coaches and training groups,” he says.
“We've had many countries trying to tap into that in recent years, sending their athletes to train alongside us. It's our mentality. In Jamaica, we know we have to work hard. We do not get anything unless we work for it. My success is just a continuation of the great traditions left behind by past athletes.”
Head-to-head clashes are the lifeblood of all sports and one of the most mesmerising aspects of Bolt's dominance has been his ability to pull himself above all would-be rivals through sheer outrageous speed and force of personality.
While London 2012 was billed as the showdown between Bolt and his training partner Yohan 'The Beast' Blake, one which Bolt ultimately comfortably won, Rio 2016 will be defined by two seismic clashes – Bolt versus Gatlin in the 100m and 200m. It's been the same story for the past two World Championships. So far Gatlin has yet to really get close but as in Beijing last year, he arrives in Brazil with the fastest times of the season to his name and this time there has been a noticeable edge between the duo.
Bolt was forced out of the Jamaican trials in June with a hamstring strain, before being selected for the team under an exemption. Now fit again, he responded angrily to Gatlin's subsequent protests, warning him that he would 'face his wrath' in Rio.
Bolt insists that he relishes the rivalry. “I fell in love with running fast when I knew I was good at it and I could beat other people,” he says. “I'm an adrenaline seeker. I love fast cars. One of the best rushes of my life was when I got to drive a Nissan GTR at their test track in Japan with their professional drivers. So I love that aspect of it but when I line up in any race, I know I'll have seven guys beside me and I have to respect them all, but try to beat them all. If I'm in good shape and I've done all the hard work in training I know I'll be good.”
Perhaps one aspect which sets Bolt apart from the rest is his ability to seemingly relax and focus on being in the moment when under the greatest pressure. He says the key for him is to actively avoid thinking too much.
“When you're waiting there, minutes before the race starts, it's easy to end up staring down the track and getting caught up in it all,” he says. “But when you know you're in good shape then the performances come. Everything clicks and you just run the perfect race. You don't need to think too hard, just execute. It's in my personality to relax beforehand and take my mind away from it all. If you're trying to remember everything, the different phases and whether you'll get it right or not, then this will throw you off. I just end up thinking about random stuff and that gets me in the zone. Focused and ready to perform.
Rio may well be the last championships at which Bolt runs the 200m, the event which has long been his speciality. He says he would like to break his own world record of 19.19s one last time and possibly even break the magic 19 second barrier. Is it achievable? Even for Bolt it seems like a long shot, but history has taught us never to underestimate him.
“I am trying to become a legend, the first athlete to win three golds at three Olympics, so that when I retire I will be recognised not just for the great performances, but for the transformation of the sport, bringing more people to watch athletics,” he said. “My faith teaches me to believe in my ability and trust that hard work and determination will make me successful. It gives me confidence in my God-given talent and so I never set limits on what a human can do whether it is running, jumping or something else.”
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