Usain Bolt is a medal-collecting, record-breaking, money-making machine, and a one-man brand who represents the best his country, Jamaica, has to offer. Now his meteoric rise to the top has been immortalized in I Am Bolt, a documentary that has been released ahead of his retirement next year. He meets with EL PAÍS in a London hotel, where he discusses his career and future plans.
“It’s getting harder all the time. I’m tired. People look at me and say, ‘Oh, it’s so easy what he does!’ And I’m like, ‘It’s not! It’s hard!’” Usain Bolt gestures wildly to indicate the amount of energy required to become one of the world’s most successful and charismatic athletes.
Since the age of 10, when his cricket coach advised him to try the track, Usain Bolt hasn’t stopped running. Now, as he moves into his thirties, he is preparing to withdraw from a sport that has turned him into a legend. From 2008, he has dominated the 100-meter and 200-meter sprints, and the 4 x 100 meter relay, breaking world records, both in the Olympic Games – Beijing 2008, London 2012 and Rio 2016 – and at the World Championships – Berlin 2009, Daegu 2011, Moscow 2013 and Beijing 2015. Of the 21 gold medals that could have been his, Bolt has taken home 20. His only hiccup was the 100 meters in Daegu, Korea, where a false start saw him eliminated from the final.
“I remember I did an interview with Michael Johnson,” says Bolt, “and I said to him why did you retire? And he said to me, ‘I’ve done everything I could in sport so what else could I do? What’s the point?’ And that’s a valid argument. I’ve already achieved my goal. I wanted to be an Olympic champion, so I already got it.”
I think if I had stayed free of injury, I could have broken more records. I think there was space for improvement
In London at the end of November for the premiere of I Am Bolt, the 6ft-4in athlete has the unmistakable air of someone on his way out. When he first enters the hotel room, where journalists from all over the world are lining up to see him, he smiles and says hello and takes a photo of his first interviewer with his cell phone. “I like to keep a record of the people I talk to,” he explains.
The new documentary about Bolt’s life was filmed as he trained for the Rio Olympics and examines not only his schedule, but also the man behind the machine, including his professional and personal relationships. Here we are shown the Bolt who finds it hard to get up early and start training. “It’s not as fun as it used to be,” he admits. “The older I get, the less fun it is because you have to sacrifice a lot more. You can’t party as much. I hate doing something I don’t enjoy. I just want to have two days where I don’t have to train, go to bed really late, chill out, be me, feel human.”
But the documentary also shows Bolt preparing for the race, pushing his body to the limit and listening to his trainer Glen Mills, his manager Nugent NJ Walker, his agent Ricky Simms and his masseur Everald Eddie Edwards – his entourage. “Come on, Usain, you have to push yourself,” says Simms in the run up to Rio. “Just three months and after that you can do what you want with your life.”
In Rio, Bolt became the first man ever to have won the Olympic triple – 100m, 200m and 4 x 100m three times. “I want to be remembered as one of the greatest athletes ever in sport, like Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan or Pelé. But I also want to be remembered as a laidback, chilled, fun-loving person who inspires others,” says Bolt when asked what legacy he expects to leave the world.
Curiously, Ali and Jordan interrupted their careers and then made a comeback. The boxer didn’t make it the second time round while the basketball star did. Bolt says he’s been thinking about this. “As soon as you retire, you retire,” he says. “To come back to the sport once you’ve withdrawn is very tricky.”
The Jamaican giant will compete for the last time in the World Championships in Athletics in London next August. “There’s a lot of talk over whether I want to retire before someone beats me,” says Usain. “If I worked hard, I’d probably be able to compete at the top level for another two years.”
“This year, my idea is to run for my fans,” Bolt adds. But it’s also about the money. Bolt will, for example, earn $1 million for competing in the three-meet Nitro Athletics exhibition series in Australia next February. Featured at number 32 on the Forbes World’s Highest-Paid Athletes list, he is the top-earning track athlete with an income of $32.5 million. Compared to other sports, such as football, basketball, tennis or golf, track and field is relatively poorly paid. Most of Bolt’s money comes from sponsorships –$30 million in 2016, a third of which was from sportswear company Puma. “I want money to make sure I can do what I want but I am not focused on it,” he says. “Nor on the fame. I think my parents would be really disappointed if I changed or became an idiot.”
Bolt smiles easily both on and off the track. He was like that as a kid, says manager Nugent NJ Walker, who has been a close friend since Bolt was six years old. “That’s his personality.”
Judging from the documentary, the runner has inherited his easygoing manner and capacity for discipline from his parents, Wellesley, a coffee farm worker and Jennifer, a seamstress. They were and still are modest folk who refuse to leave their home or the town of Sherwood Content where Usain was born and brought up. “They don’t want to go. Believe me, I’ve offered!” says Bolt who adds, “My dad was the strict one. But mum was more laidback and fun. I have worked hard for what I want. It wasn’t easy and there were ups and downs, injuries and times when I wasn’t motivated, but my personality has stayed the same… I like to laugh.”
He also likes to compete and it is hard not to be affected by the sheer drive and charisma he brings to an event. In fact, people who have seen Bolt in action speak about undergoing a catharsis. This is particularly so back in Jamaica where he shares godlike status along with Bob Marley, whose son Ziggy is a friend – as are musicians Chronixx and Vybz Kartel. But while Bolt has the power to move a crowd, his fans also have the ability to motivate him, something he first noticed in 2002 at the World Junior Championships. “I remember coming out of the tunnel and hearing people shouting and chanting, ‘Bolt! Bolt! Bolt!’ I immediately got nervous. My legs, my hands, and my body were trembling, but when the race started, I felt a push.”
At 15, Usain won the 200m in the World Junior Championships in Kingston, Jamaica. “The first time I won gold in front of my people was the best moment in my life,” he says. “That’s when it all began.”
The best moment of my life was when I won gold for the first time in front of my people. That’s when it all began
But the following five years were difficult, particularly 2004, which was his first year as a pro. “We spent the whole year searching for chiropractors and physiotherapists to fix his back and hamstrings,” recalls his agent, Ricky Simms. “And at that point, we thought, okay, is he going to live up to what he promised as a junior? It was hard until 2006. But in 2007, he started showing consistency.” In the Osaka World Championships that year, Bolt won two silvers.
The following year, the Jamaican exploded onto the scene at the Beijing Olympics with his unforgettable victory in the 100 meters. Not only did he break the world record with his time of 9.69 seconds, but he did so with a dramatic flourish, beating his chest 20 meters before the finishing line. Inevitably, many wondered if he wouldn’t have notched up a better time if he had left out the theatrics.
“I know what you’re saying,” he says, “but at the start of my career, that’s how I was. I celebrated like that. I think the more mature you get, the more you realize you have to run differently.” A year later, Bolt broke more records at the World Championships in Berlin with 9.58 seconds in the 100-meter event and 19.19 in the 200-meter dash.
No one, not even Bolt himself, has been able to beat those records. “I think if I had stayed free of injury, I could have broken more records. I think there was space for improvement,” he says.
Although injuries have never caused him to lose a major international event, Bolt has struggled to be ready in time to compete since 2012. He says he owes much of the credit to his trainer Glen Mills who has been with him since 2004 and who is now training Yohan Blake, the Jamaican track champion who is set to succeed Bolt. In the documentary, Mills can be heard telling Bolt prior to Rio in 2016: “It’s time to go. No party. It’s an end to this party-going ’cos the coach says it’s time to go.”
With his appetite for life, Bolt is not an easy man to rein in. For example, the documentary reveals how a night on the town produced a twisted ankle. It might seem like a minor incident, but it kept him off the track for two months before Rio. “At first, I didn’t tell my trainer the truth, I didn’t say that it happened at a party,” he recalls, laughing. The ankle was bad but there was worse to come – just a month before the Games before the trials in Jamaica, he tore his hamstring and decided not to risk it.
The fact Bolt didn’t earn his ticket to Rio in the national trials like any other athlete caused a degree of controversy. Trial or no trial, Jamaica was not about to overlook an athlete who hadn’t been beaten since 2008. His inclusion on the team prompted Bolt’s great US rival, Justin Gatlin, to accuse the country of favoritism. Curiously, this provided Bolt the motivation he had been lacking (“It’s hard to have the same drive to win as someone who never has.”).
“Everything changed,” says Bolt in the documentary, speaking from his hotel room. “I got that feeling in my stomach. I thought, what? It’s going to be you? No. What [Gatlin] doesn’t understand is what motivates me most is him talking all the time. Which means that you yourself, Justin…”
Several days later, he went on to win three gold medals, giving him the distinction of the triple-triple – three sprinting gold medals in three consecutive Olympics.
So what now? “There’s a few things I want to do,” he says. “I definitely want to stay in sport – in track and field – and I also want to work more on my charity [focusing on underprivileged kids]. I’d also like to play football; that’s something like a dream – [Puma have arranged for him to train with Borussia Dortmund next pre-season]. People say that because of the personality I have I could be on TV or even be an actor. You never know.”
There’s also getting married and having kids, but only Bolt knows whether he will pop the question to Kasi Bennett, his girlfriend since 2014 who is also Jamaican and a fashion and social network buff. Kasi had to deal with photos of Bolt posing suggestively with a number of women after his Rio hat trick, but that’s something he prefers not to discuss. “I try to keep away from the media as much as possible,” he says, “but the older I get, the more they want to see what I’m doing.”
As with his performance at the 2008 Olympics, Bolt hopes to enjoy the last stretch of his career, beating his chest and looking left and right as he smiles at his fans. “I’ve dedicated my life to being the best in athletics; I have tried to be a legend, an unbeaten champion. For me, it’s sad now, but also liberating because it’s over. That chapter is finished and now I can relax, go on holiday. I can just live.”
English version by Heather Galloway.