Until the events of a Beijing night four years ago you could ask anyone to name Jamaica’s most famous son and the answer would undoubtedly be: ‘Bob Marley’. But such is the iconic status of the man now sitting in the courtyard of Marley’s former home, that Usain Bolt may be succeeding the reggae superstar.
The grace and apparent ease of Bolt’s treble gold at the Beijing Games, the easy-going charm with which he’s carried the title of the world’s fastest man so lightly on his shoulders, and an aura of almost superhuman invincibility have seen Bolt transcend the world of athletics to become a true global superstar in the intervening years. The biggest rivalry in track’s showcase event became Bolt vs The Laws of Physics. The question was not ‘Would he win?’, but ‘How fast could he go?’
But, in Korea last summer, something strange happened. In the 100m World Championship final in Daegu, Bolt didn’t win. In the biggest race outside of the Olympics, he false-started for the first time in his career and was disqualified, leaving his younger compatriot, training partner and rising star Yohan Blake to take his title as World champion.
Those 10 seconds sent shockwaves around the athletics world, but what do they really tell us about what will happen in London this summer? To answer that, we need to delve behind the easy smile and into the mind of the beaten, unbeatable man. Does Bolt have the self-belief, confidence and psychological steel to bounce back on the biggest stage of all? Or is he content with the immense amount he has already achieved, happy to dine off his celebrity status and reap the lucrative rewards of Brand Bolt?
Sitting in the warm Jamaican sunshine, in the shadow of the other Jamaican legend Bob Marley, Bolt has the answers: “If I win three golds again at the Olympics this summer, I’ll be a living legend,” he says. “Most legends are dead but I’ll be walking around, living and breathing – and I like the sound of that.” Surely, though, isn’t a man who has bagged five world records, four world championship gold medals, and is triple Olympic champion, already a legend? Apparently not. “It’s all about retaining Olympic titles,” Bolt says. “And I can tell you exactly why: world records are great, but they can be broken. World Championship medals are also fantastic but only in the world of track and field. Outside the world of athletics the Worlds don’t really have a big following.
“When I do interviews with non-sports media they have no idea that in Berlin [World Championships 2009] I got three golds and two world records. In fact some journalists have written that I attained my world records [9.58s 100m; 19.19s 200m] at the Olympics – which is untrue. “But the Olympics… the whole world knows what that is. It is the greatest spectacle on Earth. When the 100m Olympics final is on, everyone says, “Usain Bolt is running. Turn over and let’s watch.”
The day job
And watch we have done, in our billions, as his jaw-dropping performances have turned him into one of the most bankable sporting stars of our age. It’s an economic reality that obviously hasn’t escaped Bolt himself, who talks with so much fluency about ‘maximising opportunities’ and ‘opening commercial doors’ that it’s difficult to believe that this is the same guy who sat there, a callow, twitchy and monosyllabic 21-year-old, the first time RW interviewed him four years ago.
In response to a suggestion that, in plastering himself all over European TV screens this spring with endorsements for Visa, Virgin Media and the Jamaica Tourist Board, he will be seen by some as having ‘cashed in’ and lost some of his credibility, Bolt simply shrugs. “If people want to think that of me, this is fine. But I never try to be cool, I just try to be me. And in all the ads I did I was still being me. Clowning around, having fun. Plus, I’m just doing my job. Athletes earn most of their money through endorsements and that’s just the way it is. The sponsors pay us, we do what they want.”
On the next page: Discover how Bolt plans to win three golds at the London Games.