Interview with Usain Bolt
Equality as well as rhythm inhabits those inflections. Everything a human being can do is shared out in them. Whatever the verb – talk, sleep, eat, breathe, walk, run – they demonstrate that our actions are gestures in common. They define our activity, our energy. They define our species.
Now, apply this particular conjugation to the three of us: me and you, writer and reader, and the lanky young man in a loose white tee-shirt sitting across from me on a sofa on a Kingston veranda. And suddenly it loses all equality, all democracy.
A pause. He runs. The beat and the sense have just fallen apart. The shared meaning has vanished. There never was any shared meaning.
Perhaps, once. In his childhood, in the back roads of Trelawny parish in north-west Jamaica, where his mother was a dressmaker and his father a manager for the local coffee board, he was just like the other kids, for a while.
“It was just really quiet. Pretty much everybody knew everybody. We liked to ride our bikes most of the time.” There were team games then, football and cricket, at school and most hours outside school. “We played football in this man’s yard. We used to break a lot of windows. One time we had to put up some money, buy like ten sheets of windows, just in case we break one.”
As he speaks, folded thoughtfully on the leather cushions, he nods as if in pointed homage to his memory’s images of that simplicity. For that too vanished fast. From the age of 10, when his cricket coach told him he could be a fast bowler and soon afterwards suggested that he try track events, parity with his peers – and the rest of us – was left behind. The dominos tumbled: his school’s fastest ever runner at 100m (12 years old), high school championship 200m and Caribbean Games 400m silver medals (aged 14), youngest world-junior gold medallist over 200m in 2002 (aged 15), again gold in 2003, at 16 reaching times Michael Johnson did not record until he was twenty. At 17 he was the first ever junior sprinter to run 200m in less than 20 seconds.
A couple of years of a young man’s troubles, of injury and scrapes and misdeeds, turned out to be only a pause, a transition to more dominos falling and more records smashed: at Beijing in 2008, 100m, 200m and 4 x 100m gold medals, despite slowing down to celebrate before the finish in the 100m; at the 2009 World Championships at Berlin, new world records in 100m, 200m and 4 x 100m. The highest record-breaking margin at 100m since the beginning of digital chronography: 9.72 s, 9.69 s, 9.58 s…. If the Platonists are right, and objects in the everyday world are mere imperfect copies of the perfect Form, Usain Bolt is the closest to the archetype we are ever likely to see.
The most revealing thing about his early performance as a runner is that he didn’t have to try. In junior athletics in Jamaica he was well known as a joker, messing around because he won almost every time without effort. He was the prodigy at play.
“It was much easier for me, that’s all. I didn’t really take it seriously because I was winning, I didn’t have to worry about training hard or anything else.”
When he turned professional in 2004 and his coach, Glen Mills, told him that his results in future would depend on how much work he put in, “I was like, hmm, we’ll see.”
The natural athlete he was, the phenomenon he now is, are a profound, tantalising, and reactionary reminder: of the obscure contender rising from the poorer, unknown corner of a civilisation, his strength undiluted by sophistication, his excellence a complex of nature, talent and vitality. Usain’s favourite distance is 200m (2008: 19.30 s / 2009: 19.19 s). In classical Greece, the 200m footrace known as a stadion was the first and greatest event at the ancient Olympic Games, and every four years the entire Olympiad was named after its victor. When I tell Usain this, he throws himself back in his seat and laughs.
In the earliest Olympics a runner could come from anywhere too (provided he was a free man and spoke Greek). 2750 years later, we continue to mythologise the excellence (Greek: arete) of our athletes, refusing to renounce the link they provide between our prosaic present selves and the contenders we too might have been. Whether this man is a Platonic ideal or not, Plato would fully have understood his symbolism, and the ethical value of athletic arete. In order to devote himself to the search for the perfect state, Plato abandoned an athletic career; and it was Plato the athletics fan who attended the games at Olympia incognito. In terms of athletic grace, the resemblance between Myron’s 5th-century BC bronze of a Diskobolos and Usain’s characteristic “lightning” pose, legs akimbo, one arm drawn back, the other with index finger stretching to the sky, is undeniable. This being Kingston, tough Kingston, reggae Kingston, it’s not very surprising when he grins and says that it’s one of his dancehall moves.
The prodigy identified, a surprise nevertheless surfaces early in our conversation. His genius is not solitary. He draws energy from others around him: family, friends, local fans. The reason he cites for enjoying running today even more than when he started out, is friends. “I’m making more friends. Although it’s a job I’m really making a lot of friends.” He is close to other runners: Asafa Powell, Wallace Spearmon (there’s a hesitation over Tyson Gay whose records he took in 2008).
And he needs his home supporters. In fact his nerves depend on pleasing them, and his intimacy with them lets him relax. Counter-intuitively, the most tense moment of his career occurred at the World Juniors at Kingston in 2002, in front of his home fans and friends. He was far more nervous there than at the Chinese Olympic stadium six years later.
“I was so nervous that day, it was ridiculous how nervous I was. But then I won, and the way I looked at it, if I could win in front of my home crowd then it shouldn’t be a problem winning in front of millions of strangers. So for me that was a turning point in my life.”
At 23 years old, he has a curiously rested, calm face and a bodily composure that contains both enigma and considerable charm. He is very tall, long-tall (1.96m), and boyishly muscled (93.9kg) although, when he stands up, you notice that his calves look both streamlined and extraordinarily dense. Despite the composure, he is still given to boyish emotions. After the 100m at Beijing he was scolded for slowing down and slapping his chest before the finish line. He said at the time, “I wasn’t bragging. When I saw I wasn’t covered, I was just happy.” Now when he is not racing, or training (3 hours x 5 days a week), he plays games on his lap. He abandoned football games because his team, Manchester United, was knocked out of the Champions League and “it kind of hurts really bad to watch”. (On his lap now is NBA Live 2010 basketball.) Saturdays he is likely to be dead asleep after going out the night before, Kingston time: start at one in the morning, hit a dancehall session, come back after daybreak. “That’s it pretty much. We’re still young.” On Sundays he’ll kick a football with friends.
Yet his performance is not that of the prodigy any longer, but the craftsman. When I ask if he misses the days when he could do it without trying, after a night putting on his moves, he says, “Of course you’re going to miss those days. The days you’re lying on your back, you’re throwin’ up, you’re tired and your head’s spinnin’. But you got to work on it.”
As a junior his height was an advantage at first. Then his slow start times began working against him. “Because being so tall it’s hard to get out of the blocks and run. But I worked it to be my advantage again. Now that I can get out of the blocks and get up to speed, it’s going to be hard to beat me.” He regards the hundredths-of-a-second improvements in his reaction times in the same way he regards his events, the tracks on the IAAF fixture list, even his starters, with a scientist’s eye. Lausanne is a good track for 200m. The starter at Stockholm is slow. At Brussels the starter is very quick, “by the time he says ‘set’ it’s almost time to go”. He has learned to listen to his coach, to do the drills, to wait patiently for the results of hard work.
The 200m is his favourite race, it turns out, exactly because of all the work he has put in to be good at it. “You can see the difference in my cornering every time. For me at first I was running too close to the line, so when I’ve come out of the corner I go wide. You got to perfect it at the start, most of the guys turn their blocks into the corner, I can’t do that. Because I’m tall I can’t just run into the corner, I’ve got to go straight and then work my way into the corner. I have to really work hard to get it right.”
2008: 19.30 s / 2009: 19.19 s / 2010…. He deflects the question. “I’m not thinking about that right now,” On 16th July he will appear at Paris at the stade de France for a Diamond League event, where he will run 100m for the first time in Europe since Berlin. 2009: 9.58 s / 2010…. This time he responds. “My coach said I have two more years before I peak. So I’m scratching my head, because I’m saying, if I’m running 9.5, then if I could get a full season of less distractions I should do extremely well.” He laughs. “If I peak at 9.4 that be good.”
In two years’ time it will be the London Olympics. 9.4-something seconds at the London Olympics: it would be an extraordinary moment, another Usain Olympiad…. “You really think you might get to 9.4?”
“I think always anything is possible for me, because I can surprise myself. You can never say never with me because I go there, I work hard and I train hard, so hopefully it will come.”
“Even though you like the idea of not trying hard, you’re quite competitive.”
His voice suddenly deepens and becomes correctional. “I’m very competitive. It’s not ‘quite’. I’m very competitive.”
He is also optimistic – “every time I go I’m going to do extremely well, and even if it’s an off race, the next race should be good” – and this too seems to be because he is happy in his skin, drawing support from his network of family and friends. He has never wanted to be out of Jamaica for long, and while commentators have welcomed his success as a new beginning for a sport tainted by drug scandals, some have also speculated that he has stayed in Jamaica because there is no independent Caribbean anti-doping federation. But he was tested negatively four times before the Olympics, and the Jamaican team doctor, Herb Elliott, who is a member of the IAAF anti-doping commission, has invited any concerned party to “see our programme, come down and see our testing, we have nothing to hide.”
Glen Mills has said that Usain “doesn’t even like to take vitamins”. I ask him about this and he says he has no special diet, eats everything. If he weren’t a champion runner, then, I say, he’d be a –
He stays in Jamaica too because he has seen other sprinters go to college in the USA and get back home five or six years later, burnt out. But the main reason is that it’s home.
“I go out there, and the fans come to support you and I really enjoy it because they respond to the things I do. It’s a job, and a job is supposed to be fun, and they make it fun for me. It makes it just that much easier for me because I know they’re here and I’m so much more comfortable being here and being myself.”
Everything’s normal, then. The victor eats, sleeps, watches TV, plays games on his lap, hangs out and plays football with his friends, turns up to training. And in a few years, when he’s won everything that’s going and feels he is just repeating himself, he wants to own a business. “I’m not sure what business, but my aim is to put my foot up and sign some cheques. A big office, TV, fridge, big soft chair, and I’ll sit around and do nothing.” He laughs at the idea, which sounds like a dream: a lazy antithesis to his daily training routine. Of course he is moving up the economic scale. He moved into a large, slightly gloomy house in north Kingston in January. That too is normal, hardly furnished yet, aside from the wall plasma TVs; it’s a boy’s crash pad – only with a dining-room table overwhelmed with just-unpacked medals and trophies and statuettes and plaques, and several keys and freedoms of cities: the sportsman’s honorary doctorates.
Yet all is not normal. He gives an impression – inescapable – that his achievements, his arete, separate him from us; this is almost certainly as much, or more, our projection than his doing. But there is more. Laconic, a little distant, thoughtful, quietly spoken, at one remove from the triviality of life, despite his constant computer games, he still seems to enjoy life as a child does, in a limited world of obligations, after which there is all the time in the world for serious play. He is above our world of time, where schedules, meetings, 24/7 availability are ruled by an often despotic continuity. He lives in his own world, in which time is his equal, only occasionally asking him to step outside and play a game against it. We run and try to catch time. He plays, and he wins, and he is not only above us but above time. “It’s smooth,” he says.
“Especially when I hit top speed. It’s the smoothest feeling. Because I’m spending so much less time on the ground.”