A tribute to (and long interview with) the Living Legend that is Usain Bolt
Posted on 6 August 2017 | 9:08am
Well, that was a day of unwanted outcomes on the sporting front … Burnley’s ‘friendly’ against Hanover abandoned because of German thuggery … and somewhat more significantly, Usain Bolt failing to deliver the fairytale ending to his individual track career that most members of the human race were hoping for.
As I said here yesterday, when posting an interview from last year with Mo Farah, I also interviewed Bolt in the run up to the Rio Olympics last year, and today I am posting that interview in full, below. Re-reading it this morning, one line leaps out … ‘I accept I cannot win every race. I work hard to decrease the chances of those things happening, but I accept they will happen. A lot of people don’t accept it. They get injured, they go crazy, “oh no I wont make these championships.” These things happen, that is how I look at it.’
This exchange now feels quite poignant too.
AC: Is 30 old for an athlete? [he was 30 at the time we met]
UB: Most stop around then. Physically I am fine. It is the workload every day, the training, and the more I go on, and the more success I have, the less time I have for myself, so I get tired.
Perhaps we should have paid more heed to his head-shaking after the 100m heats on Friday. He said he was not happy about the starting blocks, but maybe he just wasn’t feeling ‘on it.’ He did manage to get under 10 seconds last night, but with Justin Gatlin and Christian Coleman milliseconds ahead of him. The fact it was Gatlin, convicted drug cheat and all that, added to the sense of loss around the stadium and in homes all over the world.
Those inclined to hate Gatlin – though I thought the pantomime booing was over the top last night – won’t have their hate assuaged by what they read about him below. But it was a sign of the sincerity of the view expressed by Bolt above, that his first act on losing was to go and genuinely congratulate the winner, before then embarking on a lap of honour.
As you will read, Bolt is keen to maintain a role in the sport, after he finally bows out after the 4 x 100 relay on Saturday, and IAAF President Seb Coe is even keener that he should. He is such a force of nature, and such a wonderful personality, perhaps second only to Muhammad Ali in the reach he is able to extend as a sportsman, and that without – deliberately, as you shall see – ever engaging in the kind of political battles that made Ali even more special than his athleticism did.
Even a year ago, Bolt was accepting that he is now as much a global brand as he is an athlete. The brand is so strong that it can withstand the defeat to Gatlin, just as Ali’s legend survives the five, mostly forgotten, defeats in his career. And don’t be surprised if Bolt’s final race on Saturday ends up with him getting his final gold. I am so excited that I will be there, fresh from watching Burnley win – or maybe draw – at Stamford Bridge on the opening day of the football season. We can all have football fantasies … Bolt does. Read on.
Here is the GQ interview from last year
I had three decent INs for an encounter with Usain Bolt. My daughter Grace, who had met him in a Kingston nightclub, so I had some funny photos with which to break the ice, added to which I hoped he would be impressed I was missing her birthday to see him. My friend and documentary maker Gabe Turner of ‘Class of ‘92’ fame, who is making a fly on the wall film about Bolt, I Am Bolt, who put a word in. And the people from Enertor, a new foot-hugging, shock-absorbing shoe insole that is Bolt’s latest investment venture as he transmutes from athlete to post-athletics businessman and global brand. I felt I needed these Ins, having sensed from reading up on him that he could be a bit hit and miss about how much he gave of himself in interviews. Oh me of little faith.
We met at the University of West Indies running track in Kingston, Jamaica, where Bolt is preparing for his attempt to add three more Olympic Gold medals in Rio to the six won in Beijing and London. Sheltering from the searing heat in an air-conditioned caravan, as outside a small army prepared to film yet another commercial starring the fastest man on earth, barefoot Bolt, his remarkable physique on show in sleeveless running vest and shorts, was laid back, charming, funny, and generous with his time. He has a rich baritone voice and a booming laugh, both of which came in handy when he found time to join me in singing happy birthday to Grace down the phone. Meantime, we covered everything from his love of his coach to his hatred of selfies; why he steers clear of politics; why he prefers Ronaldo to Messi, and Ali to Mayweather; why he is not getting married any time soon; his worries about his sport’s future, his hopes for Rio and beyond, and why Sebastian Coe made him promise to stay in athletics when he hangs up his spikes. Oh, and in a moment of pure bromance, he let me go where no interviewer had gone before, and feel his abs. But we kicked off on the scale of his fame and superstardom, which led to the first of two displays of (modest) modesty for this self-confessed ‘living legend.’ You’ll have to read to the end for the second one.
AC: Ok, so let’s imagine – you die today, the Queen dies today, Muhammad Ali dies today, Paul McCartney dies today. Who leads the news?
UB: (Laughs) You’re killing me and we only just got started. Well, no matter where you go, anywhere in the world, The Queen will win, definitely, without a doubt.
AC: But you’re having the Number 2 slot?
UB: I’m giving myself Number 2. (laughs)
AC: How conscious are you of being a phenomenon? And when did you first start being conscious of it?
UB: It’s when you start travelling to remote places like when I was in Kenya, way out in the country, and people know you, it feels strange when it first happens.
AC: Where was the last place you went to where you weren’t recognized?
UB: Surprisingly maybe the place I get recognised the least is the States. The States is not so big on track and field. Some recognize me there but lots don’t.
AC: Do you prefer it when you get recognized or when you don’t?
UB: I’m ok with both, but it is less stressful not to be recognised, and I can be a normal person.
AC: Do you feel you are a normal person?
UB: Over the years I have tried to live as normal a life as possible, and it isn’t always easy. Like I go to have a drink with friends and it can be hard, people want pictures, you’re just trying to hang out, and the simple things are not easy to do.
AC: How many selfies do you reckon you’ve done?
UB: A lot. Since they came in with the selfie, it’s the worst thing. You hardly ever get asked for autographs any more, it’s always selfies.
AC: Which do you prefer?
UB: Autographs, for sure. They’re easier. Some people ask for a selfie and they don’t even know how to use the camera on their phone, so it takes lots of time.
AC: Do you feel that people think they own you?
UB: In Jamaica, for sure.
AC: I was amazed at the part in your book where they booed you, and Glen Mills [Bolt’s coach] told you that is how Jamaicans are. If you lost in Rio, would they boo you?
UB: I don’t think they would boo me, but a lot of athletes have had the same experience I did, if they are not happy with your performance or they think you don’t care, they let you know.
AC: But surely they know you care?
UB: They thought I was faking an injury. A guy was pushing me hard, I strained my hamstring, I felt the pain, I backed off and they booed, they were saying I thought I was going to lose, and I was pulling up as an excuse.
AC: I was at the London Olympics for your Finals and the whole crowd was basically rooting for you. Is that a good pressure or is it tough?
UB: I have learned to ignore all that. When I was younger I always wanted to impress, to be good for my country, to make them feel good, and sometimes that meant I didn’t focus on myself enough. I learned I had to put myself first. And it’s fine because I want for me the same thing that they want for me, which is to win.
AC: What motivates you more, a love of winning or a fear of losing?
UB: I love competing. I am so competitive. I definitely need to win because I hate losing.
AC: So you love winning because you hate losing?
UB: Yes. I am the type who, if I know I will lose, I won’t compete. NJ [manager and best friend since school] wants to play golf all the time. He is no good but I am worse and he is always challenging me to play, but why would I want to lose?
AC: Have you ever gone into a race thinking you might not win?
UB: Maybe a race where I know I am not at my best and it is part of preparation for a big race. But at the big championships, then I am sure that I can do it.
AC: There was a time before London when Yohan Blake was the man and you were being written off a bit.
UB: The older I get, the less I am bothered by talk like that. I have total faith in my coach, total faith.
AC: I can’t believe he called you an amateur after you won Gold in London.
UB: (laughs) He spotted something I did wrong, and he was right.
UB: I leaned too early. I was running, I looked across, I realized I was going to win, the thought I was on for a world record entered my mind, I reached for the line when I should have stayed straight.
AC: And that is all he saw?
UB: That is him. He sees things I don’t see. Like there was a time my start was horrible, and we couldn’t figure it out. He watched and he watched and it was about where I was putting my arms. He saw that. He sees little things. It’s like when I am injured, he finds crash programmes, if he has six weeks to get me right, he does it.
AC: Do you ever argue with him?
UB: Never. I have 100 percent belief. He says ‘Usain, this is what we do,’ and I do it.
AC: So you’ve sorted yourself out on the food front?
UB: Yes, I am much better on diet. I eat what I have to. The older you get, the better you get at making sacrifices I think.
AC: What other sacrifices do you make?
UB: I have learned that if this is what I am going to do, and do it well, then I have to avoid drinking. The hard part for me is rest. I am a person who stays up late. If I go to bed early, I don’t sleep, but I know I have to rest. That is always a struggle for me.
AC: What about going to clubs and hanging out with my daughter?
UB: Ah, the clubs, that’s easy to cut out, because I know when the season ends I can look forward to going out.
AC: How do you see yourself now, as an athlete, a brand, or a business?
UB: That is a good question. The more success I have with track and field the bigger my brand is. So I would say I’m more of a brand now, trying to build for the future.
AC: So what are you trying to build for the future?
UB: I am trying to add to my greatness. Be a role model, have people look up to me and be inspired.
AC: I was at the Muhammad Ali exhibition in London this week. His legacy was not just sporting but political. Are you political?
UB: No, never have been, never will be. Politics is tricky, especially in Jamaica. There are two parties, JLP and PNP, and if I went for one, I’d upset the supporters of the other. I stay as far from politics as I can.
AC: What about religion? Your Mum is very religious. Are you religious?
UB: I don’t go to Church so much, but I do believe in God and I understand the consequences of faith. My coach tells me I should go to Church more often.
UB: (laughs) He thinks I need to live a better life.
AC: What does God mean to you then?
UB: I was always brought up to believe in Him, and to behave in certain ways, that is what my parents taught me and I always trust my parents, because they have great values.
AC: Are you still a mummy’s boy?
AC: Is that a Jamaica thing?
UB: No, it’s a me thing. My Dad was a big disciplinarian so I went to her side more.
AC: Is he still?
UB: Oh yes, all the time. They were born in the 60s. That was the way.
AC: What do you do in your life that has nothing to do with sport?
UB: I just watch TV and chill.
AC: What was the last book you read?
UB: Mike Tyson’s autobiography.
AC: You’re a big Manchester United fan …
UB: (Makes pained expression)
AC: What does that look signify?
UB: It has been a horrible season.
AC: Do you think Leicester winning the League is good for football?
UB: I suppose it opens up the possibilities for others to believe, but supporting Man United has been stressful, full of ups and downs, not much fun.
AC: Why did you end up supporting United?
UB: This is a country that didn’t get many games, and the first I saw on TV, Ruud van Nistlerooy was playing, he was great, I didn’t even know they were such a big team, but I loved watching him play, and became a supporter.
AC: All that stuff about you maybe becoming a footballer when you stop running, that’s bullshit yes?
UB: I could be a footballer, but I won’t try.
AC: Remember Michael Jordan switching from basketball to baseball. Disaster.
UB: I wouldn’t be as bad as Jordan. I play football every Tuesday and Thursday early in the season, I am smart enough at the game, I’m a striker, I score a lot of goals. I wouldn’t be the best in the world but I am ok.
AC: So who is the best in the world?
UB: I am a Cristiano Ronaldo man.
AC: Is that because he played for United or because you genuinely think he is better than Messi?
UB: Very good question. He left United and he got even better. For Messi I feel he has to go somewhere else. The whole system at Barcelona is built around him, the coaches respect him, he runs the team. I feel he has to go to another league and play with the same dominance, then I will say ‘allright.’
AC: Can you learn anything from watching these guys at the top of different sports?
UB: It is hard to say. Every sport is different. They have to be dedicated to what they want, make sacrifices. It is the same.
AC: What about the mental side? How much do you work on that?
UB: I have just accepted certain things and it makes it easier. I accept I will get injured. I accept I cannot win every race. I work hard to decrease the chances of those things happening, but I accept they will happen. A lot of people don’t accept it. They get injured, they go crazy, ‘oh no I wont make these championships.’ These things happen, that is how I look at it. I have been injured every season for the past seven years. I know what it takes.
AC: How much do you fear injury?
UB: I am over fear. It will happen. I just hope not so late in the season in the build up to major championships. So this season I was cautious, no chances with anything and then I twist my ankle, not even training, just walking down the stairs. Every season something happens so I have already programmed that in, something will happen.
AC: Which other sports do you look at and admire?
UB: Swimming. I swim when I am injured. What the best guys do is so hard. Michael Phelps is the best, for sure.
AC: What about boxers?
UB: For me it is still Muhammad Ali, nobody else.
AC: Not Floyd Mayweather?
UB: I can’t watch a Mayweather fight. I don’t find it exciting. I used to watch boxing, the Tyson era, it was exciting. Now it is all bob and weave, a punch here and there. It is not entertaining.
AC: Do you see it as part of your job to entertain?
UB: Yes. I have to show who I am, play with the crowd, play with the camera. When people cone to a race, part of it is the anticipation, ‘what is he going to do?’
AC: Do you plan that?
UB: Sometimes yes. I might go to a country where some particular thing is happening and I can play off that.
AC: So you are entertainer and showman, not just runner?
AC: Do you see anyone coming through in athletics who can replace you?
UB: Not with my personality, no. Yohan Blake, my training partner, can be a great athlete for sure.
AC: Is he your tip for silver in Rio?
UB: It won’t be easy. It is so hard to come back after injury. I have tried to tell him, it is a hard road ahead.
AC: So you could end up with nine Olympic golds to your name?
UB: Could? I will. (laughs)
AC: Are you sure?
UB: As long as I am injury free.
AC: But one of them, the relay, depends on others.
UB: Ok, let’s go for eight, definitely eight.
AC: You’ll be 30 on the day of the closing ceremony. Is that it for you?
UB: For Olympics, yes. But for running, no.
AC: So you will do the World Championships again?
UB: My coach doesn’t want me to talk about this kind of thing. I think he wants me to go on and on, see how far he can push me.
AC: Is 30 old for an athlete?
UB: Most stop around then. Physically I am fine. It is the workload every day, the training, and the more I go on, and the more success I have, the less time I have for myself, so I get tired.
AC: If you didn’t win in Rio, how bad would that be?
UB: I don’t think about it. I never sit at home and say ‘what if I don’t win?’ I wont have that idea in my mind. I have one goal, and that is to win.
AC: When you turn up and all the focus of the crowd is on you, is that an advantage?
UB: At a big championships, I don’t hear the crowds so much. I get energy from them, but I don’t hear much. I am focusing on myself. I don’t psyche out the other
AC: Did Justin Gatlin really spit in your lane?
UB: Yeah, 2010. I thought it was funny. That is what guys used to do, try to intimidate and stuff. But I am the fastest so how can he intimidate me? If I am in the race I am the fastest, so there is nothing you can do. You have to beat me and then maybe next time you can try to undermine me or intimidate me because I might be worried. But they can’t scare me.
AC: How conscious were you in the World Championships that the whole sport wanted you to win because of Gatlin’s doping record?
UB: I was not stressing about what other people wanted. I put myself first.
AC: So the image of the sport, the worries of the IAAF …
UB: If I start to think about it, I have too much stress coming on me, Alastair. So I was saying I have to do this for myself. I need this for myself
AC: What is your current assessment of the sport?
UB: Not good. It has taken a lot of batterings, there’s been a lot going on, I try to focus and compete and do positive things for the sport.
AC: How well do you know Seb Coe?
UB: We’ve talked a couple of times. He said to me ‘you cannot leave the sport, you cannot walk away totally when you stop racing.’ I agree. If he finds me something to do, to travel, educate the younger kids, motivate, I will do it. I would love that, I want to stay in the sport. I tell you one thing that makes me feel good, is when people contact me on instagram or facebook, kids and adults, who say you’re an inspiration, you make me want to work hard to achieve my goals. If I can still do that after I retire that makes me feel good.
AC: Tell me about Gabe’s ‘I am Bolt’ film.
UB: They’re tracking me through till after the Olympics …
AC: So you better had win then …
UB: Without a doubt. I’m not worrying. We’re trying to do something different, more personal, more emotional.
AC: Do you like being wealthy?
UB: I am not really in the wealthy bracket yet.
AC: You are.
UB: I am getting there. Who wouldn’t like it? It makes you comfortable, life is less stressful, you can be confident. I don’t buy that much, less than when I was younger.
AC: How many cars do you have these days?
AC: It used to be nine.
UB: Ten. I’ve cut the fleet down. When I only had one, if it broke down, it went to the garage, and I was back to taxis. So I bought another one, then I kept on buying them.
AC: So what is your guilty secret now?
UB: Vacation for my friends. After the season I take my friends away.
AC: Still the same friends as before?
UB: Friends I’ve had for a long time.
AC: Can you ever imagine not living in Jamaica?
UB: No. But I would like to try Australia. Whenever I go there it is always chilled, lots of fun, not bustling crazy.
AC: You’ve never encountered racism there?
UB: No. And the girls really like me there.
AC: When are you getting married for God’s sake?
UB: ‘For God’s sake’ – what do you mean? The thing is where you’re from, culture. I’ve noticed in England, people reach a certain level they feel they have to get married …
AC: Not me, unmarried bliss 37 years.
UB: So why you trying to get me married? There’s not that same pressure here to get married, have a family, as in England. There is no stress. I life my life, I enjoy it and when I am comfortable, I can get married.
UB: Nearer 40 than 30.
AC: Do women literally throw themselves at you? I mean they do it to me and I’m not as famous as you, and your body is in slightly better shape.
UB: (laughs) They do. You have to say no more than yes. You have to be so careful, especially in England.
AC: Now you’re talking. Let’s give the British press a kicking.
UB: It’s crazy there. It can be scary. They send women out … ‘go get Usain Bolt, go get so an so,’ and it makes you nervous. It might be someone just being nice, innocent, but you feel nervous. It’s not a good thing.
AC: Do you feel your own power and presence in those situations, when people approach you like that?
UB: Yes I do. I feel it because I can feel the eyes everywhere. One thing I have learned is that someone is always watching you. Whatever you do, someone is watching.
AC: How does that make you feel?
UB: Sometimes it’s weird. Sometimes it’s cool.
AC: Like, if a pretty girl is doing the watching, cool?
UB: Right. (laughs) And if it is an old guy with a camera…
AC: The shoe thing we just had the presentation on, you’ve invested in that, yes?
AC: And will you use it yourself?
UB: For sure. It’s good. For track and field, anything that helps you that is legal is good.
AC: That gunk they make the insole from looked like an illicit substance to me. You can promise me you won’t put it up your nose?
UB: (laughs) I can promise you that.
AC: How many drug tests have you had so far this year?
UB: Nine, maybe.
AC: How does it work? Can the testers turn up any time?
UB: Basically you have to give them hours every day when they have to know where you are, and they can come any time.
AC: And you have to pee.
UB: Pee, and also they can take blood tests.
AC: Mo Farah told me sometimes he couldn’t pee.
UB: That happened to me once, but not any more. I had just started out, didn’t really know about drug testing. I peed just before the race, and I was drug tested after and I couldn’t pee. I was there all night. I was the one who closed the stadium, I was there that long. I just wasn’t hydrated. Now, I have learned to pee three hours before a race, then keep hydrated, so by the time the race is over, if I’m tested I have some pee left in there.
AC: I am not comparing my long distance running with your world record sprinting, but I pee the whole time before I run.
UB: Yeah, but you take a long time to do a marathon. I go ‘whoosh,’ and then I’m done.
AC: Do you have a specific routine for what you’re thinking in a race? Like second by second thinking?
UB: No. It depends on what the coach wants for the race in question. He might want a certain execution, he’ll tell me when I need to drop my arms, cut the stride, and I have that in mind, and that determines what I am thinking.
AC: But it’s just you in the lane. Why isn’t it the same every race?
UB: Because he knows what he wants for each race, he tells me and I will listen.
AC: Is he hoping your Rio times can beat London?
UB: We always try be as fast as we can. Sometimes it is just winning the race, don’t worry about the times. Last season I had issues with my joints, we couldn’t figure it out, but then he did figure it out. That is why I always have faith in him.
AC: What makes him special?
UB: He is so smart. He gets to know you. He says the right things.
AC: When you are not training, do you talk much?
UB: Not so much.
AC: But he is like a third parent?
UB: For sure, that is what he is. As soon as we get to training, we talk. I ask questions, I want to learn, why is he saying this, why is he suggesting that? I can see other athletes now, doing the wrong thing, because he explains everything, breaks it down so I can understand it.
AC: When was the last time you had a sleepless night?
UB: Any time I have to get up early, I don’t sleep well.
AC: But you’re not lying there worrying?
UB: Not about track and field. Maybe other things.
AC: What is your resting heart rate?
UB: I don’t know, I never take it.
AC: Wow, I thought athletes were obsessed with it.
UB: We’re not like the distance guys. I have a very simple approach. I don’t over complicate. People ask me, are you doing 42 steps, 44 steps for 100 metres? I don’t know.
AC: It was 41 in London wasn’t it?
UB: There you go. I don’t have a clue. These things don’t bother me. I think about the technical stuff but not how many steps or what my heart rate is.
AC: Can I feel your abs?
UB: (laughs) Sure.
AC: (does so) My God. That is rock hard.
UB: I work on it.
AC: What is the best sit up?
UB: I don’t do sit ups.
AC: What do you do? The plank?
AC: How long?
UB: Two minutes.
AC: I can do four.
UB: How old are you?
UB: Good shape man. I don’t just do simple planks. I do lots of different exercises involved while in the plank position.
AC: Fair enough. Now, will you do me a favour. I should be at my daughter’s birthday. Can we sing Happy Birthday to her down the phone?
UB: No problem. Love to.
(We sing happy birthday. He then records his own message wishing her happy birthday, and telling her ‘your Dad is cool. Not many people can get me to sing happy birthday to their kids.’ This is a highlight both for me and Grace)
AC: I am very grateful. She will forgive me for not being there now.
UB: No worries. I enjoyed that interview. Most people just ask the same stuff and it’s boring. That was good fun. I enjoyed it.
AC: Glad to hear. Last question, I promise. Greatest ever Jamaican, you or Bob Marley?
UB: (laughs) Have I died again?
AC: No, forget dying. You’re still here.
UB: Marley every time. He is just everything.
AC: What about if you get nine Gold medals?
UB: Mmmm, now you’re talking. No. It is an honour to me if people even put me in the same sentence as him, let alone say I might be as great as him. I remember when I was fourteen I went to race in Hungary, and I went to a concert, and they were playing Bob Marley songs, and I thought ‘wow, this guy is so special.’ It’s Marley every time.