The London Olympics is one year away and, to celebrate, ShortList talks to Usain Bolt, the fastest man who’s ever lived
An estimated 106 billion people have walked the Earth throughout history. It’s hard to believe that the languid (and occasionally dancing) specimen with gangly limbs and size 13 feet sitting in front of ShortList and musing over Chinese takeaways is the fastest of the lot.
Usain Bolt is a phenomenon. The 24-year-old Jamaican sprinter holds world records in the 100m (9.58sec), 200m (19.19sec) and 4x100m relay (37.10sec).
In the pre-Bolt era, the 100m record had fallen by 0.05sec every 10 years. Bolt shifted it by 0.11sec in just 12 months. He can travel over 12m per second and reach a top speed of 27.79mph.
“He has changed our perception of human capabilities,” says Dr Reza Noubary, an expert in sports statistics at Bloomsburg University.
But there is something even more baffling. Bolt breaks these records with his shoelaces untied, winks “Come get me” at the cameras while his rivals practise breathing exercises, and prefers KFC to vegetables. This bizarre juxtaposition of superhuman powers and endearingly ‘normal’ behaviour makes Bolt the star attraction at next summer’s London Olympic Games, with 1 million people alone applying for tickets to watch the 100m final.
“When I heard that, it was just wow, wow, wow… This is going to be huge,” says Bolt. “Of course, it’s going to make me a little bit nervous, but it’s going to be fun. I like to make people happy, so the more people who want to watch me race, the better. I don’t really get stressed.
“There are so many Jamaican people here in London, it’s going to be like being at home for me.”
Will he be swapping his pre-race Chicken McNuggets for a bellyful of British fish and chips? “No, not really,” he chuckles. “When I’m in London it’s all Chinese, man. I go to Chinese restaurants in Teddington. But I don’t even get special discounts. They never really say, ‘Ah, Usain Bolt!’ and get excited. I just walk up to the counter and order.”
Bolt grew up in a bungalow in the rural parish of Trelawny, northwest Jamaica with his mum Jennifer and dad Wellesley, who ran a grocery store, and brother Sadiki and sister Christine. (He now lives with Sadiki and his best friend and assistant, NJ, who has accompanied him today, in an exclusive three-bed apartment in Kingston replete with bodyguard, chef and six cars, thanks in part to his Puma sponsorship deal that runs until 2013 and is reputedly worth around £20m.)
He was a hyperactive child, often running away to the nearby town of Falmouth to play in the arcade, but also a natural sprinter, winning school and national trophies. He wasn’t invincible, often beaten by rivals Riccardo Geddes and Keith Spence until, aged 14, he got serious. At 15, he won the 200m at the 2002 World Junior Championships before making history at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games and the 2009 Berlin World Championships.
As his Twitter page humbly states, Bolt is “the most naturally gifted athlete the world has ever seen”. His towering 6ft 5in frame means he takes just 41 strides to run the 100m. His rivals need 44 to 45. “It looked like his knees were going past my face,” said rival Tyson Gay in 2007.
Bolt also has an estimated 80 per cent of fast-twitch muscle fibres, ideal for explosive movements such as sprinting. Scott Trappe, of the human performance laboratory at Indiana’s Ball State University, believes he may possess “superfast-twitch muscle fibres” that function at double the speed.
But Bolt’s success isn’t built on luck. His height makes him almost 20kg heavier than Gay and he suffers from scoliosis — a warped spine that leaves one leg shorter than the other. So he rises at 6.30am to train, build muscle, sharpen his starts (he reacts to the gun in 0.146sec) and eradicate technical flaws (grazing the floor with his left toe on his second step used to cost him hundredths of a second). Bolt has unique physical gifts, but he maximises their potential…
When did you know you had a special talent?
I was always running around as a kid and was always quick, so I won a lot of school races. But when I won the World Junior Championships, that made me realise I could do something big.
How much of your speed is natural?
I am lucky that I have a lot of natural talent, but my success is all down to hard work. I could run under 10sec now even if I didn’t really train, but to win medals it’s all about training on the track, working hard in the gym and improving my technique.
Did anyone ever say you weren’t good enough or too tall?
Not really, but sometimes when I was injured people would say it was because I was lazy or partying too much, which annoyed me. My height makes it harder to get out of the blocks, but when I get going, it helps my stride.
Were you also good at other sports?
Yeah, I played cricket and football. I was a No3 batsman and a fast bowler. When I played football, I liked being a goalkeeper or a midfielder. I was probably better at cricket. I would be a very good cricketer if I was a professional now. I think I would probably have been the best, in fact.
What were you bad at?
Anything over 400m. Seriously. Marathon? No chance.
Who were your sporting idols?
I always looked up to [Jamaican sprinter] Donald Quarrie. I’m also a big Manchester United fan and I started supporting them because of Ruud van Nistelrooy, who scored all the goals.
Would you rather play cricket for the West Indies or football for Man United?
Come on, don’t ask me that question! If Man United wanted me, honestly I will be on it like this [hits his hand]. After the Olympics, when I’m 27, if Sir Alex Ferguson is still manager of Man United and he says to me, “Usain, I’ll give you a contract right now to come to play for us,” I’ll be out.
What do you do when you go out?
I like my Guinness. I’m Irish, man. Guinness is big in Jamaica. Back in the day, there was a famous song called Red Bull And Guinness [by Delly Ranx & Chino] and they called it ‘Ghetto Whiskey’. Listening to music makes me happy. I like to DJ and have played some sets in clubs.
Does your coach, Glen Mills, allow you blow-out days?
[Laughs] My coach never tells me to go and do something bad. He would never say, “Go and eat chicken nuggets.” He doesn’t want to have it on his conscience. I might just say I’m going to eat them and he will say, “Ah, whatever.” He knows being strict won’t work.
Can you cook?
I can make some meat, scrambled eggs, fried eggs or omelettes, but that’s about it, really. I’ve got you well covered for breakfast, basically.
What one treat would you like to have in your room in London?
A PS3! Of course, man! It makes me relaxed. When I’m stressed, I just play video games. Say, for example, when NJ is stressing me out [NJ rolls his eyes], I’ll just go into my room, lock my door, play about four hours of PlayStation and I’m good.
What are you playing at the moment?
Call Of Duty: Black Ops. I play it online and I’m pretty good.
Do fans hunt you down?
You cannot let them know it’s you. I let a guy know it was me once and, oh man… They just want to prove, “Ah, I’m kicking Usain Bolt’s ass.” I can understand that. It’s their moment.
Do you have any famous mates?
I’m big friends with [West Indies cricketer] Chris Gayle. I bowled him out once in a charity match and I kill him for it all the time. He was not happy.
Where do you keep your medals?
My medals are actually in a vault in a bank so that I can’t lose them. I misplaced my World Championship medals for months, but I found them. They were in a bag in a closet. It’s bad news when you can’t find your medals, but I figured that I’d just go win some more.
What makes you angry?
People knocking on my door. Every morning. At 9am. [Trying to get NJ’s attention, who is ignoring him] He’s not hearing me, is he?
What makes you happy?
Food, water… Ah, just kidding. When I’m at home, with my big-screen TV, my PlayStation, dinner, and being around friends, that’s what makes me happy. Girls make me happy, too. Beautiful girls.
Who would play you in Usain Bolt: The Movie?
[“Jason Statham,” suggests Bolt’s agent, Ricky Simms] Jason Statham? Look at me, I’m a black man. Hmm… Jamie Foxx. He’s got the body, too. He probably wouldn’t be as fast, but I can do the running parts.
Do sprinters psych one another out on the track?
I’ll joke with guys in my team such as Asafa (Powell) and (Yohan) Blake because we know each other. But I won’t be like that with all the guys in the line if I don’t know them so well, because I don’t want anybody saying, “Oh, you’re trying to put me off my race.” Not everybody likes to joke around.
In your autobiography 9.58, you wrote that you could run the 100m in 9.4sec and the 200m in under 19sec. Is that your plan for London?
That would be wonderful and I really hope that I can break my records again in London. It’s within the realms of possibility to do that. I can still improve a lot, but there is definitely a limit to what the human body can do.
Last question — what do you want to be remembered for?
My rock-hard abs.
[Laughs] No, as a fun-loving, laid-back person — the man who brought joy to track and field.
Puma athlete Usain Bolt wears the Puma FAAS 300 running shoe, available from Prodirectrunning.com