'This will be the moment and this will be the year when I set myself apart from other athletes in the world," Usain Bolt said in a quiet but dramatic statement of intent on the brink of the Olympic Games in London. The world's fastest man talked with unusually deep concentration and a calm seriousness of purpose as he stressed his belief that he would seal his dizzying legacy in the coming days.
"A lot of legends, a lot of people have come before me," Bolt said. "But this is my time."
There was composure rather than arrogance in Bolt's voice. In a candid and open interview, the 25-year-old Jamaican had already dealt with the shadows of his recent dips and doubts and the threatening figure of his friend and now imposing rival, Yohan Blake. Bolt knows that, if he can overcome all his new challenges and disappointments over the past year, he can join sport's most exalted pantheon.
No man has ever successfully defended his 100m Olympic and 200m titles on the track. Carl Lewis's name is now in the record books after his second-place finish to Ben Johnson in the 1988 Olympic 100m final in Seoul was upgraded to a gold medal following the doping scandal that ruined that race forever. But no sprinter has retained his 200m Olympic crown, let alone repeated a hat-trick by also winning the 4x100m relay for a second successive time. If Bolt replicates his feats from the Beijing Olympics, where he won three gold medals with blistering speed and irresistible panache, his name will echo alongside near-mythic sporting figures like Jesse Owens, Muhammad Ali, Pele and Michael Phelps.
Look at me
In 2008, some three billion people watched Bolt shatter the world record and win the Olympic 100m final with ridiculous ease in Beijing. His blurring 1.95m frame and huge stride helped to produce the most exhilarating trick of time. Running faster than any man had run before, Bolt was so far ahead of his straining rivals he made it appear as if he had slowed to a saunter as he spread his arms wide in a "look-at-me" gesture and crossed the finish line. He wore the expression of a man who had conquered the world.
This time will be different. Bolt could be tested in exacting ways. Yet the prospect of him securing his reputation as the greatest sprinter in history will entrance an even larger global television audience.
The mistaken assumption used to be that Bolt simply needed to turn up, mug for the camera with some dancehall steppin' and then run and win before reaching for his arrow-shooting victory pose. "What can I do?" he said. "You can only do your work and let people believe what they want. I work my hardest because I know what it takes to be a champion. I know what I want and I'm focused on what I need to do to win."
Yet a contrasting quartet of races now flits across the usually sunny outlook of the brilliant and charismatic Jamaican. Last year, at the World Championships in Daegu, South Korea, Bolt lost his 100m title after he was disqualified following a false start. While Bolt cried out in agonised frustration as he stalked around a confined area behind the track, the restarted race was won by Blake, his clubmate and younger rival.
Two months ago, in late May, Bolt ran the worst 100m of his professional career and recorded a time of 10.04 seconds in Ostrava, in the Czech Republic, failing to break 10 seconds for the first time in three years. "I had a bad start and had no feeling the whole race," a dejected Bolt told the massed cameras and recorders. "My legs kinda felt dead. I don't know the reason. The first 40m were really bad. I never felt the power out of my legs."
Bolt still won that low-key race, but, tellingly, he suffered two defeats in three days at the Jamaican trials. On June 30 the 22-year-old Blake beat him in the 100m, winning in 9.75 seconds, 0.11 seconds quicker than Bolt. More shockingly, on July1 Blake defeated Bolt in the 200m, a distance over which the Olympic champion had been considered "unbeatable" for years.
These setbacks have deepened an already consuming interest in the men's sprint. The battle between Bolt and Blake adds another dimension to the glamour and thrilling blur of the 100m. Bolt retains his grip on his romantic title as the world's fastest man and his 9.58-seconds record has been unmatched for almost three years, but Blake has won the three races that have mattered most to them over the past 11 months.
Training in Birmingham as he wound down his preparations for London, Bolt remained engagingly uncomplicated. He did not shy away from a single question or seek refuge in evasive self-effacement. Instead, he was honest in underlining a belief that his "ups and downs" would make retaining his three Olympic titles all the sweeter.
"Definitely," Bolt said, reaching for his favourite word. "When you go through a lot it helps, because you can say all these things happened for a reason. The key thing to remember is that hard work does pay off. If you put the work in, it will definitely pay off in the long run."
Bolt spoke plainly, suggesting that, after enduring unfamiliar adversity, he had become mentally stronger. "Yeah, definitely. It gets annoying but after a while you get used to people making their own comments and just judging you. But I'm always positive. I know what I want. I know what I am capable of. But it makes you stronger when you have to work so hard to get better and you have to go through all these trials."
He sounded convinced he was now in the kind of shape that would ensure his victory in both the 100m and 200m Olympic finals. "Definitely," Bolt said, relishing the familiar punch of that same old word. "Each training session I'm getting better and better. I have no other duties now, no worries. It's all about training, eating and sleeping. I have a lot more time and can put a lot more effort into training. I'm feeling better every day."
It is easy to believe in Bolt, primarily because of his outrageous speed and ebullient conviction, but that day his willingness to confront some darker moments utterly persuaded me. It could be heard in his insistence that "it's always good to lose. It wakes you up." This did not sound like a distressed lament.
Yet footage at last year's World Championship captured Bolt's angry devastation at being disqualified. Asked whether those emotions defined the worst moments of his career, Bolt was emphatic: "Yeah, definitely. Without a doubt, because I worked so hard in coming back from injury last season. Everything came together at the right time and for me to squander it explains why I was so upset with myself. At that very moment it felt so bad because I knew I could have won the race."
Surely the one false-start rule seemed crazy to Bolt? If it happened in London and Bolt or Blake was disqualified, it would kill a much-anticipated race not just for the affected athlete, but also for billions of viewers.
"Listen," Bolt said, "rules were made. For me to make a mistake does not now allow me to say we should change that rule. My coach [Glen Mills] always explains that it's not about anticipation. It's about being professional and getting it done, and when you're out there you should listen because the starter is the judge and jury. You should just focus on getting the start right."
Starting from scratch
Bolt has often struggled with his start, because it is the weakest area of his otherwise imperious sprinting pedigree, but did his disqualification in Daegu haunt him? Did it affect his slow starts in Ostrava and at the Jamaican trials?
"No, I don't think so," he said in a measured tone. "Every season, for me, it's like starting from scratch again. Me and my coach sat down and evaluated and talked a lot about this. We've figured out where I have gone wrong and what I need to do to make sure I get a consistent start."
Had he found a method to produce that more consistent start? "Yeah, yeah, definitely. I've actually bought some blocks that we're going to be using at the Olympics and I've been training with them. I will be much more comfortable and much more consistent starting with those blocks at the Olympics."
And yet, right next to him, or just a few lanes away, Blake will hunker down in his own blocks. Was Bolt shocked to suffer successive defeats to Blake? "You can't say it's a shock. For me, it's good to have your eyes opened wide, to have ups and downs so you can really evaluate what you did wrong, or what you need to do to get back where you need to be. It was extremely good it happened at the trials so I could refocus."
Did his sluggish run in Ostrava, where – briefly – he appeared bewildered by his performance, shake him? "No. It wasn't really a concern for long. I just knew [Bolt laughs] I wasn't getting enough sleep. All I needed was some sleep and then I felt better. The next day I was back to my normal self."
Some critics suggested Bolt was partying too much, but did defeat rekindle his hunger for success? "My hunger is always there," Bolt said coolly. "Things happen throughout the season that throw you off sometimes, but you have to learn from your mistakes. I just need to put things in place to make sure it doesn't happen at the Olympics. I just try and get over it and get my confidence up to a level where I'm comfortable at the Games."
Bolt was not physically at his best and struggling with a tight hamstring, but he refused to excuse his successive losses in Jamaica. Great sprinters, after all, require great rivals to lend gravitas to their legacy. Had Blake emerged, just in time, to push Bolt to even more extraordinary heights?
"Well, for me, Yohan is going to be a great athlete and, so far, he has shown the potential to be that great. But I think, definitely, Tyson Gay is one of the fiercest athletes out there."
Bolt has beaten Gay decisively over the years and it seemed striking that he should name-check the American alongside Blake. Gay himself has stressed that no one can match Bolt's "big-event mentality". This will be Bolt's third Olympics, whereas Blake remains untested in the most brutal sprinting arena. "I wouldn't say it's a big factor," Bolt said of Blake's inexperience, "but it will play a role because to show up in the Olympics is not easy.
"It's not going to be him alone. It's going to be me, Asafa Powell [also from Jamaica], Tyson, Justin Gatlin [the United States's 2004 Olympic 100m champion who returned last year from a doping suspension] and all these guys. It's a packed race with top-class athletes, so it will be a different level of competition for Yohan. It's going to take a lot of focus and it's going to cause a lot of stress. It will really test him as an athlete and as a person. We'll see how good he is."
There was no biting cynicism in Bolt's statement. Rather, he made it sound as if he was as intrigued as we are to discover the depth of an opponent known as the Beast.
Was Bolt really the first man to give Blake his nickname? "I said it once and people just took it and called him the Beast. I said he's a beast at training so people have now started calling him the Beast." Did Bolt regret stamping such a fierce alias on his most serious adversary? "No!" he exclaimed. "It's a good nickname and he likes it, so it doesn't bother me in any way. It doesn't matter."
He also knows what Blake is capable of on the track. Even more than defeat in the trials, or being forced to surrender his world title, another image links Bolt to Blake. It comes from a Diamond League meeting in Brussels last September on a night when Bolt won the 100m in a carefree 9.76 seconds. Yet, later, the cameras homed in on a visibly startled Bolt as he watched Blake cross the 200m finish line in 19.26 seconds, the second-fastest time in history. Bolt's world record of 19.19 seconds had not been dented, but the taller, older and much more illustrious sprinter could not help himself. His hand covered his mouth as if he needed to muffle his astonishment.
It seemed a graphic insight into his true feelings about the rising threat of Blake. The rivalry between the two men is now such that, sharing the same coach in Mills at the Racers Club in Kingston, they train apart. Yet their friendship off the track continues in seemingly untarnished fashion.
At the world championships last year, Bolt shared an apartment with Blake and Powell. Will that happen again at the Olympic village? "Of course," Bolt said. "We're always going to be friends and teammates. It's being part of a team. You need to be around people so you can laugh and relax. All the seriousness of the track happens when you line up and the starter takes over. For me, the important thing is to be relaxed and not worry about anything."
Race of all races
The rest of us can simply savour a 100m final that is being described as, potentially, the race of all races. Bolt himself hardly resists the giddy anticipation of a sprinting showdown on Sunday.
All eight finalists could conceivably run under 10 seconds. "If the weather is great, I definitely think it could be the greatest race. We have six guys who, for sure, can run under 9.9 seconds and they should all make the final. So there is no doubt this could go down as the greatest final ever. If the weather is great and things work out, then everything is possible – that's my motto."
Such expectation engenders searing tension. Bolt likes to claim his most jubilant moment on the track came when he was just 15 and he won the 100m Junior World Championships in Kingston. Yet before that race he was so nervous that he initially put his shoes on the wrong feet. He chortled at the suggestion that, considering his commitment to Puma, his long-time sponsors, he would not make the same mistake in London.
Yet surely even Bolt would struggle to contain his nerves? How would he compose himself the night before and, then, in the last hour and the final moments before he settles into his starting blocks? "It's always good to have a little bit of nerves. You've just got to deal with it. And I think I'm past being extra-nervous, especially when I feel myself. When I'm myself there is never any worry and, right now, I'm starting to feel better and better in training. The nerves get less and less the better I feel."
Bolt can relish, instead, the prospect of winning three Olympic finals in London, which, for him, "couldn't be a better place. It couldn't get bigger than this. There couldn't be nowhere else because London is really like a second Jamaica."
Is it possible that Bolt, Blake and Powell could complete a Jamaican hat-trick of medals in the 100m? "It's going to be interesting," he said with a throaty chuckle. "But I can't call that because I can't say if everybody will be relaxed on the day. But I'm going out there to win. I can't speak for anyone else."
Gatlin and Gay will be intent on ruining that Jamaican rivalry. The former Olympic champion, Gatlin has regained some of his old speed and ferocious commitment. At a meeting in Zagreb, Croatia, he even seemed to spit into Bolt's lane – a gesture that elicited amusement in the smiling Jamaican. "I just think that's what he's used to," Bolt said of Gatlin. "He's pretty much an old-school athlete and back in the day it was all about intimidation. But for me it wasn't anything. I was really focused."
Did Gatlin actually believe he could intimidate a man who had run the 100m in 9.58 seconds? Bolt laughed. "I'm not intimidated by Justin Gatlin. I think he has used it on a couple of other athletes, but I'm a different person. It won't work with me."
Instead, Bolt can rely on both his staggering reputation and a renewed appetite for hard work to send a shiver through his rivals. Even the Beast has acknowledged that Bolt has put in the long hours to reach near-perfect shape for London. "I've definitely worked hard for these Olympics. Really hard. You have to put a lot behind you and it's all about sacrifice. You must sacrifice a lot."
Bolt seemed set on running so fast he would enshrine his legacy in London. "I've been saying this for years," he murmured as he reiterated his ambition to dominate.
On a cool English evening in Birmingham, as the sun faded and Bolt slipped away to face down the hours, his words echoed again: "This will be the moment, this will be the year – this is my time."
Those words conjured up an image of Bolt bending time again as he flies across the Olympic track with fresh resolve. He carried the conviction of a man ready to run into the stunned embrace of history. – © Guardian News and Media 2012