Big Finish: Usain Bolt chasing three more golds in his final Olympics
- Usain Bolt, the fastest man who has ever lived, has withstood a balky hamstring, a needy public and precocious challengers for nine years. Now, he plans to finish his unprecedented Olympic career with three more gold medals.
The king arrives without an entourage. It is a warm spring evening on Grand Cayman Island, just past sunset, and a Caribbean breeze whispers across the tops of the native palms and black mastics that encircle the track at the Truman Bodden Sports Complex. Green iguanas the size of beagles and lean, wild chickens are everywhere, the former ominous yet docile, the latter plump and frantic. Usain Bolt walks through a tall, swinging gate in the metal fence, accompanied by manager Ricky Simms, longtime masseur Everald Edwards, and childhood friend and executive manager Nugent (N.J.) Walker. Just the four of them. It is a lean operation, and always has been. Here in 48 hours Bolt will run a low-key 100-meter race to commence what he has said will be his final Olympic season, before he bows out for good after the 2017 world championships in London.
In the gathering darkness, beneath four light towers, Bolt walks to the backstretch of the deserted track; other athletes were assigned earlier training times so that Bolt could work unbothered. He jogs through a series of warmup strides before climbing onto Edwards’s portable treatment table and lying facedown. There are 23 other people in the complex, most of them facility workers but also a half-dozen small children. They watch from 50 meters away as Edwards pours oil onto Bolt’s legs and rubs with long, flowing strokes. Bolt checks messages on his phone. Walker places small orange cones on the track for the serious training ahead. After 15 minutes Bolt swaps training shoes for shiny, custom Puma spikes, one as red as Dorothy’s ruby slippers, one a pale Carolina blue.
This, then, is the beginning of the end of the most transcendent career in the history of modern track and field. It commenced for the world with a stunning gold medal in the 100 meters eight years ago in Beijing and is likely to end with a relay race in Rio and three more gold medals in hand, two days shy of Bolt’s 30th birthday. (The 2017 London world championships will be an encore.) He had hoped his final season would be free of injury and drama, full of fast times and dominant victories. “The one thing I’ve never had is a perfect season,” Bolt says. “No injuries, everything smooth, and see how fast I could run.” Alas, this would not be that season.
It is Bolt’s blessing that he is 6' 5" with the sudden body dynamics of a smaller man. But that long body has proved fragile, especially his lower back, which leads to a chain of leg problems. Bolt suffered a low-grade left-hamstring tear in that first race in the Caymans, an easy victory in which he limped ever so slightly, just past the finish. On the night of July 1, Bolt withdrew from the finals of the 100 meters at the Jamaican Olympic trials with a recurrence of that same tear, which had also affected him in 2015 and in several previous seasons. “It would have been crazy for Usain to run that race,” said Simms two nights later in Eugene, where he was representing several athletes at the U.S. Olympic Trials. The Jamaican Olympic selection system allows for medical exemptions, so Bolt was chosen for the team last week. He will test his fitness in a 200-meter race on July 22 in London, but there is little doubt that he will run in Rio. Opponents have seen this routine before.
“It’s a tradition,” says U.S. sprinter Tyson Gay.
“Come on,” says Justin Gatlin, also of the U.S. “You know Bolt is going to be at the Olympics.”
Bolt was a prodigy at 17 but didn’t embrace the hard work necessary for greatness until he was 20. He has since become the first athlete, male or female, to win consecutive Olympic gold medals in both the 100 and 200 meters; shattered the world records in both events; twice helped Jamaica to golds in the 4 × 100-meter relay; and took the world championship in every 100 and 200 that he has completed since 2009. (He was disqualified for a false start in the 100 at the ’11 worlds, his only major loss since ’07.) Bolt has delivered gold when heavily favored and when seemingly vulnerable in some of the most pressurized environments in sports. “For eight years,” says 1996 Olympic 100-meter champion and former world-record holder Donovan Bailey, “Usain has physically and psychologically demolished every other sprinter in the world.”
“I always put Jesse Owens above everyone,” says Michael Johnson, gold medalist in the 200 and 400 meters in 1996 and still the 400 world-record holder. “But in terms of recent years, Bolt is the greatest.”
And something more. By the force of his personality, part imp and part superhero, he has transcended track and field to become an international celebrity. Bolt is stalked by TMZ on U.S. soil, and he was a guest on Saturday Night Live in October 2012.
“Usain is that television show you turn on, and it gives you exactly what you expect from it, every time,” says Steve Miller, a longtime track and field executive who worked for Nike from 1991 to 2000 and is now chairman of the board of USA Track and Field. “And that name. Usain. Bolt. You can’t invent a name like that.”
There is no model, no blueprint. “The next Bolt,” says Marc Burns, a four-time Olympic sprinter from Trinidad, “will be for my children’s children’s children. Possibly.”
There is one act left for Bolt. Another three-gold-medal performance in Rio can be his equivalent of the titles that Jordan won after baseball, the Masters that Nicklaus seized at age 46. “These are the Olympics that separate me from the pack,” says Bolt. “I’m older now, and it’s harder for me. But anytime I start feeling really down, I remind myself, You have got to get this done this year.” He has one foot in that present and another in the near future: “What do I think about for my retirement? I just think about not doing track anymore. You know what I mean?”
Now, under a black sky and a crescent moon, Bolt drops into a three-point stance for a series of six 60-meter sprints. In the distance Simms, a former middle-distance runner, shouts, “Go!” Bolt snatches his hand from the track, drives low and hard for several strides and then rises to his full height. Up close, Bolt in flight is a breathtaking vision—part man, part velociraptor. He is not classically efficient; he holds his chest too high and his shoulders rise and fall in a dance of their own. His stride is immense. (Bolt takes only 40 or 41 steps to complete 100 meters; other top sprinters take 42.5 to 46.) The metal of his spikes clacks against the surface of the track like a tap dancer’s shoes on the stage. Bolt is shooting for 80% effort, but still, his average for the six 60s is just above 6.60 seconds. Maurice Greene’s world record for the indoor 60 is 6.39 seconds.
Walker shoots video of each sprint and sends it immediately to Bolt’s 66-year-old coach, Glen Mills, in Jamaica. He travels only to major competitions. Over the speaker on Walker’s phone, Mills suggest minor tweaks to Bolt, who nods as he walks back to the starting line saying, “O.K., Coach, O.K.” After the last sprint Mills says, “You are performing well at night!” It is a reference to the fact that while Bolt usually trains in daylight, the 100-meter final in Rio is scheduled for 10:25 p.m. Bolt throws his head back and looses a baritone laugh that reverberates across the island.
On the night of Aug. 16, 2008, in the Birds’ Nest, the stadium in Beijing, Bolt won the Olympic gold medal in the 100 meters. Seldom has an athlete gained worldwide celebrity so instantaneously. He had been known in the track community since running a world junior record of 19.93 for 200 meters in the spring of ’04, but he had only improved slightly on that in four years and had never run the 100. Indifferent about training and prone to injuries, he seemed unlikely to become a dominant performer.
In July 2007, before losing to Tyson Gay of the U.S. in the 200 at the world championships in Osaka, Japan, Bolt tried a 100 in Rethymno, Greece, and ran a respectable 10.03 seconds. Then on May 3, 2008, in Kingston, Jamaica, he stunned the sport by winning a 100-meter race in 9.76 seconds, just .02 off countryman Asafa Powell’s eight-month-old world record. A week later I traveled to meet with Bolt, then 21 years old, for the first time, in the lobby of a Kingston hotel. Bolt folded himself into a small chair, leaned over a table and explained that he had begged Mills to let him run the 100. And also that he really loved cricket. “I was a good fast bowler,” he said. “That was my best game.” He seemed like a tall adolescent with a disarmingly deep voice.
Two weeks later, on a muggy night on New York City’s Randall’s Island, shortly after an apocalyptic thunder-storm, Bolt took down the world record by running 9.72. Gay, the defending world champion and presumptive Olympic favorite, was bewildered. “We were on the same rhythm,” he said, “but his stride pattern is a whole lot bigger than mine.” Afterward Bolt told me he had spent the afternoon sleeping. “Napping?” I asked. ”No,“ said Bolt, ”I slept all day.”
Eleven weeks later Bolt won the 100 in Beijing. And it was the way he won. After a mediocre start he overtook the field by the 50-meter mark, glided away and then geared down 15 meters from the finish before turning his head to the right to face the crowd and smacking his chest with his open right hand, a gesture that some track oldsters criticized as disrespectful to the sport. The performance was elevated to legend when the clock froze at 9.69. Bolt could plainly have run much faster (how much faster is the stuff of track and field mythology). The crowd first gasped, then roared. Later that day Phelps earned the last of his record eight gold medals; the two would share the international stage.
“We’ve seen Bolt a lot of times since then,” says Johnson. “But that night in Beijing, that was the first time. He came out and just ran away. That race was over at 50 meters. He wasn’t coming back, and those guys all knew it. I had never seen anything like it.”
It was in Beijing that Bolt unveiled his signature To Di World pose, copied from a Jamaican tourism advertisement and often mislabeled as a lightning bolt. The performance and the celebration sent Bolt’s profile skyward. Two hours later, after a harrowing golf cart ride through the tunnels of the Birds’ Nest, Bolt stood beneath an ornate street lamp, awaiting a ride to the Olympic Village. A handful of Chinese volunteer workers gawked and pointed. “Big feat, man,” said Bolt, nodding. “Big feat.”
The men Bolt defeated that night gathered in the McDonald’s in the Olympic Village. Among them were silver medalist Richard Thompson and Marc Burns of Trinidad, Powell and Michael Frater of Jamaica, and Darvis (Doc) Patton of the U.S. Bolt’s victory looped on TVs around them. “We were in awe, man, we were in awe of what just happened,” says Patton, who finished eighth. “The way it happened. The dude ran nine-six. Celebrating.”
Burns looked at a screen and said, “I thought I was in the race because I was in lane 8, right next to Asafa. I was just getting ready to breast the tape, and I heard this huge roar and I thought, Oh, could be an upset. Then I looked up and Bolt is halfway around the turn, celebrating.” En route to the McDonald’s that night, Burns had run into decathlete Maurice Smith, Bolt’s roommate. Smith had told Burns that three days hence, Bolt would be coming after Johnson’s 200-meter world record of 19.32 seconds, set at the Atlanta Olympics, which was thought to be unassailable. “I thought, Man, there is no way,” says Burns now. “When athletes run anything under 9.9 in the 100 meters, with the stress your body is under, sometimes you can’t walk for a few days.”
Wallace Spearmon, a U.S. 200-meter specialist, joined the group. Burns immediately broke the bad news. “News flash,” he said. “Bolt is coming after the 200 now.” Eight years later, in a Skype interview from Trinidad, Burns is no less amazed at what happened that night in Beijing, and what has transpired since. “We were all mind-boggled,” he says. “The guy is a prodigy.”
Bolt, indeed, went on to run 19.30 in the 200, breaking a mark that Ato Boldon, the NBC track and field analyst who finished third in Atlanta, predicted would outlive him. A year later at the 2009 world championships in Berlin, Bolt broke the records again, clocking an otherworldy 9.58 seconds in the 100 and 19.19 in the 200. Both marks still stand. In the seven years since, he has added two more world titles in the 100 and three in the 200. According to the track and field website, Tilastopajia.org, Bolt has won 40 of 44 100-meter races since the beginning of ’08 and hasn’t lost a final since ’13. Over that same span, he is 27–1 in 200-meter finals, losing only to Yohan Blake at the Jamaican Olympic trials in ’12, a defeat he avenged one month later at the London Games.
Boiled down: In pressurized, hair-trigger settings against the best sprinters in the world over the past eight-plus years, Bolt has won 67 of 72 races and five times broken the 100 or 200 world record (and contributed to three more world marks in the 4 × 100). And throughout, his infectious enthusiasm has remained.
After Bolt’s workout in the Caymans, he returns to the Governors Suite on the third floor of the Westin Hotel, which rises above a white-sand beach. The suite is impressive in name only, a modest spread with a coffee table and L-shaped couch. Bolt sits barefoot on the couch, wearing a T-shirt and baggy shorts. Simms is at the table on his laptop, managing the careers of more than 150 clients and also sizing up the room-service menu for the two of them. Puma boxes and bags are scattered about.
Bolt is tired. I have interviewed him five times since that first meeting in 2008. He is always friendly and thoughtful, fully engaged in the questions and his answers (uncommon among A-list celebrity athletes). But he is also invariably Bolt Lite, a dialed-backed version of the caffeinated character seen on the starting line of the 100 meters. Only once have I seen him truly angry: as he walked from the stadium to the warmup track after being disqualified for a false start in the 100 meters at the 2011 world championships in Daegu, South Korea. The happy face was hard, a big man pissed off. “Looking for tears?” Bolt said. “Not gonna happen.” Later in the week, he crushed the field in the 200 and anchored the Jamaican 4 × 100 to victory. All was right. Here, on this night in the Caymans, Bolt is just kicked back, looking at 12 long weeks until Rio.
He leans forward to speak. “Sometimes I question myself,” he says. “Why am I still doing this? I’ve accomplished so much in the sport, you know what I mean? I still want to accomplish more, but it gets harder over time. I talked to Michael Johnson once about this, how you shouldn’t stick around too long. The more you race, the more you tear down your body. I’ve been telling people for years that I’m a lazy person, and I don’t think they believe me. But I really am. I don’t like the training.”
Bolt is not inclined to autopsy his career yet, high moments or low. “I think about this season,” he says, “and a little about the last season because it’s so fresh.“ But there are exceptions. The Beijing 100-meter final will always resonate. ”That was so amazing,“ Bolt says. ”I guess I wasn’t like a normal athlete. He waves, he dances, he’s doing different things. That caught people’s attention. They wondered what I could have run if I had run through the line. That’s the way I came to the world’s attention.“
The animated Bolt, in the intense minutes before the start of a championship 100 meters, when most sprinters look as if their heads might explode from stress, is making faces, smiling, laughing. (He often choreographs his gestures based on scenes in movies or video games.) ”It’s the equivalent of having a penalty kick to win the World Cup, and he’s back-heeling the ball into the goal,“ says Boldon. ”He’s having the time of his life, and he’s taking you along with him.“
Patton has another take: ”Bolt came along, and he was just different, and he was likable and wasn’t from the U.S. People still remembered the way those guys behaved with the flag [after the 4x100-meter relay, when the sprinters clowned their way around the track in celebration] in 2000 [at the Sydney Olympics]. It’s like people loved Steph Curry because he wasn’t LeBron James.”
Since 2008 various forces have left Bolt on the verge of major championship defeat. In April ’09, he was injured in a car accident in Jamaica. In ’12, Blake beat Bolt twice at the Jamaican trials, as Bolt struggled with a sore hamstring. Last year it was that nagging back, an issue since he was a teenager. He reached Beijing, site of the ’15 world championships, having reached only two finals in the 100 and three in the 200 in the previous four months, running none exceptionally well. Meanwhile, Gatlin had ripped a career-best 9.74 seconds. “It was just really stressful, man,” says Bolt. “In June, I wasn’t running the way I’m supposed to be running and Gatlin was in the best form of his life.” But Bolt has learned to catch up quickly, and once healthy, with a major championship approaching, he trains intensely. “Once I do a couple of 180-150-100 step-downs at proper [high] speed,” says Bolt, “I know I’m in shape.” Last summer before worlds he did a series of five 100s with five minutes rest and averaged 10.0s, world-class time for a single race.
In the Beijing final Bolt started respectably and chased down Gatlin to win in 9.79 seconds. More notably, Gatlin ran his worst race of the season. “Gatlin folded,” says Boldon. “He couldn’t convince himself that he could beat Bolt.” It was the slowest of Bolt’s five major-championship 100-meter victories but in some ways his most impressive. Bolt’s nine-year dominance of the 100 is unprecedented; only Carl Lewis comes close. From 1982 to ’91, Lewis won three world titles and two Olympic golds, but he was vulnerable in the 200 meters relatively early in his career. (Bolt dislikes Lewis for regularly impugning his performances as potentially drug-aided. In 2008, Lewis said, “I’m still working with the fact that he dropped from 10-flat to 9.6 in one year. I think there are some issues.”)
Last summer’s Beijing race took on a larger theme. Because track and field was—and still is, of course—struggling with doping issues and because Gatlin served a four-year steroid ban from 2006 to ’10 (along with a previous sanction for an ADD drug), the matchup was painted by some as a battle for the sport’s soul: Clean versus Dirty. It is a theme that Bolt never embraced. Three times since ’08, I have asked Bolt if he has ever used PEDs; three times he has denied it emphatically. A clean testing record may be devalued currency today, but Bolt has one.
From a purely physical standpoint, Bolt’s principal advantage has been his ability to coordinate his long limbs. “He cycles those long limbs like a much shorter person,” says Johnson. This combination makes Bolt almost unbeatable at top speed; his only weakness is an occasional blunder in the starting block. When Bolt starts cleanly, even if not spectacularly, he can run down any sprinter in history. (Gatlin thinks he can prove otherwise if given one more chance.)
Most people in track are of the opinion that Bolt’s record-breaking days are over. “We’ve seen the best of him,” says Burns. Bolt wasn’t so sure in May, but that was before his back and hamstring went hinky. Bolt considers the 200-meter record more reachable; it is his native race and less dependent on a good start. But his goal? “Sub-19,” says Bolt. “That would be more amazing to me than winning three gold medals again.”
“No,” says Boldon. “Forget that.”
Bolt thinks about these things and how they might happen. I asked him if he lets his mind wander during the drudgery of training. “All the time,” Bolt says. “All the time. I think about victories. I think about world records. The other day I was running 110s and then I was warming down all by myself. In Rio, should I run the 100 meters just to win and save my energy for the 200 meters? I really want to break that world record again. If I shut it down in the 100, will people be happy? I don’t know. But that’s the kind of thing I think about all the time.”
Bolt insists that he is finished with the Olympics after Rio and will retire after next year’s worlds in London, where he plans to run only the 100 meters. Sponsorships with 17 companies, including Puma, Gatorade and Hublot, push his annual income to an estimated $32.5 million, according to Forbes. He recently signed a deal with insole manufacturer Enertor that makes him a part owner of the company. Bolt, who is not married and has no kids, says, “I want to live comfortably when I retire,” and that should not be an issue—it is likely that he will retain relationships with many of his sponsors. His wealth and celebrity have risen as track’s profile has fallen, a divergence that underscores Bolt’s unique place in the universe. Meets with him in the lineup fill giant stadiums; meets without him are invisible to the broader public.
Riven by a worldwide doping scandal and searching for leadership, the sport has been kept relevant by one name. “A guy as fast as Bolt, and as charismatic as Bolt, that’s once in a lifetime, man,” says Patton. “Once in a lifetime.” A last Olympic Games are nearly here. Witnesses should watch closely. They will not see the likes of Usain Bolt again.