Faster than Lightning: My Autobiography - Usain Bolt (2013)
Chapter 10. Now Get Yours
The Bird’s Nest was quiet when I finally escaped for the evening. It was gone midnight. The floodlights were down, the bleachers were empty. The only noise came from the sound of volunteers as they cleared the trash and swept the seats; I could hear the buzzing of an electric cart as it took away a stack of equipment. The silence seemed so spooky after the explosion of noise and colour a few hours earlier. God, I was drained. I’d gone through doping control and media – hours and hours of media – and now I wanted to get my chicken nuggets, see my family, Coach, and go to bed. I needed to chill a little.
I called NJ, who was spending the summer working in America. Beijing was a long way away from our race strategy meetings in the William Knibb library, but the impact of my race had struck a chord with him, as it had with everyone else around me.
‘Yo, NJ,’ I shouted, my voice echoing around the empty bleachers. ‘We’ve finally made it to the big time!’
By the time I’d got home to the Olympic Village, I received my first clue that everything had changed for me, and I mean everything. As my car pulled up outside the Jamaican building in the Olympic Village, a big crowd of people were hanging around outside. At first it looked if there had been a fire drill or some other incident; everybody was standing in the street, waiting. I glanced across at Ricky.
Yo, what’s going on?
‘I think they’re here for you, Usain,’ he said.
He was right. As I got out of the car, the crowd turned and surged towards us. People got crazy, asking for photographs. Volunteers, athletes, friends of athletes, there were all kinds of dudes gathered around, waving pens and paper, people shouting, ‘Picture! Picture!’ I did not know what the hell was going on. Someone yelled, ‘Do the lightning bolt pose!’ My life had been transformed for ever.
I had figured that if I won an Olympic gold in the 100 metres, a few more people might recognise me. But this felt like something from a level much bigger than just a bunch of extra fans. It was larger, more ridiculous than anything that had happened to me before. There was actual hysteria going on.
I needed the calm of the Jamaica house, just to take in what was happening. When I got inside, Coach and Eddie my masseur were waiting, as well as all the other athletes. Everybody was amped up and there was a party vibe going on. Maurice Smith had brought a video camera to China and he trained it on my face. ‘Yo, here’s The Fastest Man on Earth …’ he shouted.
I laughed and stared into the lens. ‘I’m a big champion now,’ I said, taking it all in, soaking up the moment.
I was glad to be home, if you could call it that. I was away from the madness and the intensity of the Olympics for a little while. The Jamaican team had a cool atmosphere about them, there was plenty of love between the athletes, and the mood in the village was chilled. In a lot of ways it was like the junior group I’d been involved with in Hungary and Kingston. Back then, the team had been more like a squad of footballers than a group of individual athletes, and there was a strong camaraderie among the kids. We’d talk our team-mates up before competitions, we would motivate one another; we’d counsel anyone who had been beaten in an event.
The Beijing Olympics shared that same spirit even though there were some seriously talented and focused athletes in the group, including Shelly Ann Fraser, the women’s 100 metres gold medallist, Melaine Walker, who would go on to win the 400 metres hurdles, and Veronica Campbell-Brown, winner of the women’s 200 metres gold. My medal was the first one of the lot. It was about to set the ball rolling for Jamaica’s record Olympic medal haul.
Coach made jokes – well, at least I think he was joking.
‘I’ve found some things to work on for your next 100,’ he said. ‘Improvements can always be made, Bolt.’
I tried to remember every bit of the race, so I could converse with the others, to tell them how it felt to win an Olympic gold. Eddie wanted to know what type of kick I’d got when I fired down field.
‘Just joy, man,’ I said. ‘Like when I went at it on the track. I experienced a rush like I always did, but it was bigger. I felt a sense of freedom, something I couldn’t get from anywhere else. It was fun, excitement, an intense energy all rolled into one. It was beautiful.’
Someone told me that my laces had been undone for the whole race. I started laughing. Seriously? I hadn’t even noticed, that’s how in-the-moment I’d been for those brief seconds.
I breathed hard, I was drained. When I went into my room to relax, Maurice was there. I loved hanging with him. For most of the trip we had been like a couple of kids, away from home for the first time. The pair of us talked and told stories, but most of the time we joked around. It drove Coach wild, because his room was just across the hall and he was always telling us to turn it down, but in a way Maurice and our school-camp vibe had created the perfect atmosphere in which to win medals. We had made a bubble, away from the crowds and the pressure of the Olympics. Whenever we kicked back, my mind was rarely on the Bird’s Nest Stadium, Tyson, Asafa or the races. Instead, we talked about girls, football and cricket. I hardly stressed about anything.
That night was different. For the first time, Maurice wanted to discuss business.
‘Yo, what are you going to do about this world record in the 200?’
My head hit the pillow, buzzing at the thought. I knew it was a big deal, everybody did. Michael Johnson’s time was 19.32 seconds, which had seemed out of reach for me. Nobody had broken it in the 12 years since his run in the 1996 Atlanta Games – the race that had first turned me on to the idea of being a track and field champ. Even the man himself figured it was pretty safe. He’d apparently told the media that I didn’t have the endurance to maintain the same levels of speed as he had, not all the way to the line, anyway.
‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘I don’t think I’m gonna be able to do it. We’re talking about 19.30, 19.31, and I’ve never been close to that.’
Maurice thought I had it in me, though. He was psyched. ‘But Usain, you’ve just run 9.69 seconds in the 100, just chilling, dawg!’
‘I know, but the 200’s steep,’ I said, ‘I don’t know. I’m just saying …’
It was true, I genuinely didn’t know. That was my honest reaction and I wasn’t playing Maurice. Sure, I was confident of winning the 200, more confident than I had been for the 100, but I knew Johnson’s time was a huge target and my body suddenly felt pretty wiped out following the power and excitement of winning my first gold medal.
Still, I knew I’d have to psyche myself up, because there was something important about the 200 metres and me, something that a lot of people hadn’t realised, maybe because they were so caught up in my success in the shorter distance. Truth was, the 200 was my favourite event. Forget the 100. Yeah, I knew everyone thought of the 100 as the superstar race and they wanted me to go faster and faster, but my dream was to be a 200 metres champ, more than anything else. It was the ultimate goal for me and winning an Olympic gold in that event was something I’d fantasised about all my life.
For me the 200 was The Real Deal, while I saw the 100 metres as a kick, a race for fun. I knew that Coach felt differently, though. He’d wanted me to win in the 100 because he was a man of speed, he’d always been obsessed with how fast an athlete could run. That was cool, I got that, but the 200 metres was my thing and I was focused as hell on getting it.
As Maurice and me started chatting about something else, laughing hard, I could hear voices coming down the corridor. There was a knock on the door. It was Coach.
‘A’ight,’ he said, looking in on the scene. ‘You’ve got the 100, you can go get yours now.’
We both knew what he was talking about.
At first I told Maurice and the guys that it would calm down, that the hype would wear off. Then I figured it would disappear once I’d got home to Jamaica and hidden away for a few weeks. But I was trying to convince myself; I didn’t really know how long the buzz surrounding my 100 metres win would last. It was big, and everywhere I turned, people wanted a piece of me. I couldn’t go out, I couldn’t even leave my room. China had a population of billions, and at times it seemed as if all of them were hanging around the Village, waiting to catch a glimpse of me.
My trip home on the night of the race had been a taster, but the chaos really started the morning after the 100 metres final, when I got on the bus to go to the athletes’ cafeteria. As soon as I’d left the front door of the Jamaican house, I was mobbed, and I couldn’t get on the bus. Once I’d finally got on board, I could not get off again because so many workers and volunteers wanted to congratulate me. But most of all they wanted autographs. Pages and pages of autographs.
I thought I’d be free of the hassle once I’d finally got to the restaurant, but when I walked into the seated area, everybody turned around and stared. I guess I was a walking advertisement. A six foot five guy stands out in a big way and there was no hiding place, but I could not handle it. Eating a plate of nuggets while everybody crowded around and asked for autographs was not my idea of fun, so I asked Eddie to grab me a couple of takeaway boxes and I went back to my room, signing bits of paper all the way.
So this is what it’s like to be a superstar.
All of a sudden life was a bit more complicated. I couldn’t wander around the Village like I had at the start of the Games, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to walk around Beijing afterwards without causing a near riot. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t complaining. No nightclub bouncer in the world was going to turn me away from his door for wearing sneakers now, but I had been caught off guard and I was a little freaked out.
I’d heard it was just as wild at home. I saw the photos and videos on the internet. Thousands of people had been watching on big screens in the streets of Kingston, and roadside bars had been full of fans crowding around the TVs. Pops called me up and told me that the streets in Trelawny had been jammed with cars beeping their horns after I’d won my gold, and when I called NJ from the stadium he said that the reaction had been just as insane in America.
In a way it was easy to feel cocooned from the outside world in the Olympic Village. The set-up was very similar to what a university campus looked like. There were individual buildings for national teams. Each ‘house’ had bedrooms where the athletes roomed together. There were communal kitchens and lounges, so everyone could hang out and play computer games or watch DVDs. The outside world felt like a distant place sometimes.
After Athens in ’04 I had got used to the environment, I liked it. Hanging with the guys was a blast. Back then my inexperience had made me the rookie of the Jamaican group, which meant I was running the errands and the older athletes were forever sending me out for stuff. I’d be playing videos games when somebody would shout out, ‘Yo, Usain! Get me a bottle of water!’ But those walks to the fridge were all part of the initiation process for one of the youngest in the squad, and most of the time we played a lot of dominoes and chilled together.
Rubbing shoulders with sport’s biggest stars back then had also been an experience. I saw Yao Ming the basketball sensation in the athletes’ village and I was psyched. I was equally happy working alongside the likes of Asafa Powell for the first time, because I’d looked up to him. We were close in terms of age, but the guy was already running so fast in the 100 metres that he was becoming a god in Jamaica. I would watch him train and think, ‘Yo, that guy is so amazing.’ It was just a privilege to be around him and shake his hand. To know that I knew Asafa Powell was huge. It was even more mind-blowing to see him work close up.
By Beijing, times had moved on, but the vibe was still the same. We had fun, we fooled around, but there was a slight sense of isolation, and what was going on in Jamaica often felt like a million miles away. The only time I really connected with the buzz of the Olympics was when I hit the track, and when that happened I came alive.
Twenty-four hours after my first victory in the Bird’s Nest, Maurice pressed me again on that same question.
‘Yo, what are you going to do about this world record in the 200 metres?’ he said.
In a press conference that day I’d told the media that I was relaxed about the race. I had cruised through the heats, just as I had done with the 100 metres. Tyson was out of the picture because of his injury, so the only other threat was Wallace Spearmon, but I knew I had him beat. My only problem, I’d said, was that I felt pretty tired. But when Maurice asked me again, I’d found some fresh inner strength. I had changed my mind.
‘What the hell,’ I said. ‘I’m just going to go out there and give everything I have. I don’t know what’s gonna happen but that’s what I’m gonna to do. I’m going to leave everything out there on the track. That’s the plan …’
The good news was that I had given myself every chance. In the semi-finals, I cruised past Wallace and Shawn Crawford with a time of 20.09 seconds to get into lane five, which suited me because I wasn’t so close to the curve. I was feeling strong, too. Any fatigue I’d been suffering was gone.
Coach also seemed laid back, and it was clear that there was going to be no repeat of the detailed instructions I had received for the 100 metres. In the run-up to that race, he’d been there every step of the way. He had helped me to relax and gave me strict instructions about my warm-ups.
‘Don’t do too much sprinting,’ he had shouted. ‘Do two stride-outs. Do a block start. Now you’re done, don’t do any more. Forget what Asafa is doing. Blah, blah, blah …’
Before the 200 final, he seemed much more laid back, though he had been all year. I’d noticed that when it came to training the 200, he rarely set a corners session, which was probably the toughest part of our schedule. Consistently sprinting around the bend was painful work, especially with my back, because I needed to lean into the lane. But I’d done so much of it over the years that Coach seemed confident I was in shape. He gave me only two sessions all season.
‘Don’t worry about the 200,’ he said. ‘You’re good.’
‘Good?’ I laughed. ‘I think you don’t like my 200, Coach.’
I was joking, but part of me thought it was true at first. Coach’s laid-back act at the Olympics later confirmed that theory for me and, after my massage from Eddie, he strolled over to the stands to take in the action. When I walked into the stadium I caught his eye and he gave me a wave from the bleachers and the thumbs up. The only way he could have looked any more chilled was if he’d been eating an ice cream at the same time. That’s when the penny dropped.
Maybe he was just relaxed because he had more confidence in my 200 form. In which case, he was right, because when the gun went, I executed the perfect race.
I blasted past the Zimbabwean runner Brian Dzingai so fast it was ridiculous. Nobody could catch me. I hit the corner and curved around the bend real smooth, like Don Quarrie in those old videos, and I was strong. The force I’d built in my hamstrings, abs and calves blasted me towards the line like rocket fuel, and I felt the energy surging through my legs. My muscles tensed and flexed like pistons. Forget Osaka. I had power.
I peeked across the line, there was nobody close to me. With 50 metres to go I was out of sight and I knew the race was won.
Win first, think about the time second.
I looked up.
‘Come on, Usain,’ I thought. ‘You’re running for the clock now …’
I could see 16 seconds.
‘Sixteen?! Oh crap, I’m going to do this!’
Then 17 …
There was an explosion of bright light and big sound, the crowd went crazy, a mad mix of colour as thousands of flickering cameras went off and people waved flags. The time was huge: 19.30 seconds – a new world record – and if my celebrations for the 100 had been mad, then in that moment I was lost, I didn’t know what to do. I spread my arms wide, I wanted to tear off my shirt and throw it into the air. My mind had gone. Watching Michael Johnson break the record in 1996 had sown the seeds for me as a kid; that’s when I’d first considered the implications of being a champ. Over a decade later, I had taken the 200 metres Olympic gold and, with it, his world record. Three little words pinged around my brain: I. Got. It.
This is big.
‘I got it.’
This is huge.
‘I got it.’
This is the biggest thing for me – ever.
‘I got it.’
The following day, after the medal ceremony, I sat on the edge of my bed in the Olympic Village and stared at the gold medal in my hand. I was all smiles. That piece of metal meant everything to me. Somebody spoke up from behind me, Maurice maybe, I’m not sure. I was somewhere else.
‘Man, you’ve won the 200 and the 100 metres,’ he said. ‘That’s gotta be pretty good.’
I set him straight. ‘Look, forget this 100 metres thing. Shut up about that. Look at this.’
I held up the medal.
‘A 200 metres Olympic gold, after all the years of running corners and listening to people talking crap about how I wasn’t living up to the hype. Well, to hell with them, I’ve got my title now. This is wonderful.’
It was one of the happiest moments of my life.
I opened up my laptop and watched the race again on the internet. As the images flashed by and 19.30 seconds ticked away, I could see the effort cut into my face. I was digging really hard. I wasn’t kidding when I’d told Maurice that I planned on leaving all my energy on that track. Then I heard another voice from over my shoulder. This time it was Coach.
‘You know, Usain, if you hadn’t been fighting with yourself so much, you would have run that 200 much faster …’
I broke out laughing.
‘Seriously, Coach? Seriously? Give me some credit, I just broke the world record here.’
The man couldn’t help himself. He had to pour some cold water on me, just as I was revelling in a little glory. Part of me figured it was his way of keeping me grounded. Then again, maybe he truly believed there was a way of making me even faster.
I guess I might have been underestimated during the Olympics, because sometimes when I raced it looked as if I was playing. It appeared to the world that I might have been too relaxed. Athletes saw me dancing on the track, pulling faces and fooling with the crowd, and they must have thought, ‘Hmm, so Bolt believes he can just roll up to a start line and win, does he? Not today.’ But that was an oversight on their part.
Truth was, I looked relaxed because I lived for the energy of a big competition, and it didn’t come any bigger than the Olympics. The World Junior Championships had given me the confidence to play whenever I walked into a stacked stadium, but the Beijing Games cranked it up another level. I vibed off joking around in front of the fans and cameras. I pulled poses, I jumped up and down and waved to people. Sometimes it was planned and I pulled a Jamaican dancehall DJ move or a hand gesture. Other times it was off-the-cuff stuff. When I collected my 200 metres gold medal and 90,000 fans in the Bird’s Nest sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to celebrate the coming of my 22nd birthday, I pretended to cry.
That was nothing compared to the ‘To Di World’ pose, though. Pulling it after the 100 metres final had started a tidal wave of attention that could not be stopped. After my world record in the 200, photographers and fans started shouting at me, telling me to bust out the move. Every time I pulled my arms back and pointed to the heavens, the crowd roared, everyone went crazy. The sensation of being able to increase the noise in a stadium with just my fingertips felt pretty nice.
My pose was splashed across the covers of magazines and newspapers everywhere. As the days passed, I saw photographs from people all over the planet copying my move. Climbers pointed to the heavens on faraway mountaintops, and trekkers in the Amazon jungle pulled the move for their friends at home. Parents even took pictures of babies doing the lightning bolt in their cribs. Believe me, it was pretty wonderful to see.
The strange thing was, those acts of showmanship had helped me to relax. They also helped me to cut out the race chat for a little while, and playing on the start line stopped me from over-thinking about what might or what might not happen when I was tensing my legs in the blocks before a gun. That’s what the other athletes did. My relaxed style meant I could execute the perfect race.
The fans helped, too. Whenever I walked into the Bird’s Nest and waved and fooled around, I sucked up the noise of the crowd and used it to pump me up. It inspired me. The rush of noise gave me chills every time because it meant that Business Time was approaching. And the louder the crowd roared, the better it was for me.
In that moment, I was hyped.
In that situation, I couldn’t stop smiling.
In that time of confidence, when I knew I was 100 per cent fit, there was no point in any other athlete even attempting to come get me because they were not going to win. It was over already.
That attitude energised everybody. My confidence worked its way into the rest of the Jamaican team, and by the time the 4x100 metres relay final came around, myself and the other guys – Asafa, Nesta Carter and Michael Frater – weren’t just thinking about winning the gold medal. We were looking to smash the world record in style. No relay team had ever been as hyped as us before any Olympic final.
The funny thing was that we never did any preparation for our relay races. Nobody in Jamaica ever practised baton changes, and because the four of us were so fast (myself, Asafa and Michael had been in the 100 metres final) we took the race for granted. Our attitude was pretty carefree: ‘Well, we always do well, no matter how scruffy the changes are, so let’s not worry.’
Thinking back, we probably practised our handovers three times that year, and one of those sessions took place in the Village.
Maybe we should have planned a bit more, because all kinds of stuff can happen during a baton change. Athletes can stumble, the pass can get screwed up and people can panic – and believe me, the worst thing that can happen in a relay race is if someone panics. But the Jamaican girls had a similar issue, and as we warmed up before the race we stopped to watch the women’s final. The foursome of Shelly-Ann Fraser, Sherone Simpson, Kerron Stewart and Veronica Campbell-Brown were tearing round the track but, during the changeover between Sherone and Kerron, the baton was dropped.
We couldn’t believe it. Everybody freaked out. The girls had been the four fastest women on the planet and they could have won the gold medal just by chilling. Watching them blow it was a nerve-wracking moment for all of us.
‘OK, team meeting!’ yelled Michael, clapping his hands and gathering us together. ‘Let’s just get the baton around the track, a’ight?’
Everyone nodded in agreement. All of a sudden the world-record conversations had stopped. The girls’ screw-up had focused us hard, and when the gun blew Nesta flew out of the blocks. Michael was up next, and I was running the curve, but when I saw him bearing down on me I freaked out. I wasn’t sure whether I was able to take the stick from him properly, I wasn’t sure when I should start running. It was my first time racing the corner in a relay, and Michael was coming at me like a bullet down the back stretch. I had doubts.
‘OK, Usain, just chill,’ I thought. ‘Trust yourself, keep your arm out. Even if he catches you quick, have faith that he’s going to give you that baton …’
Bang! The changeover was smooth and I fired off the bend, bearing down on Asafa in a flash. I screamed out ‘Reach!’ and caught him as he was still in his drive phase. Asafa’s hand gripped the steel, but then he stumbled. I had to ease back quickly so he could find the space to drive forward.
‘Run, Asafa!’ I screamed. ‘Run!’
I followed him all the way downfield, checking the clock with every step. The world record was 37.40 seconds. It had been held by the USA team of Michael Marsh, Leroy Burrell, Dennis Mitchell and Carl Lewis since 1992. But Asafa took them down, busting through the line on 37.10 seconds.
Three races, three gold medals, three world records. Like I’d predicted on my home-made video message on the flight, I was going home a hero, and with a little extra luggage, too.