Faster than Lightning: My Autobiography - Usain Bolt (2013)
Chapter 11. The Economy of Victory
There was one downside. As a triple Olympic champion I’d become the number one target for every sprinter in track and field. The Games was the biggest sporting event on the planet and I’d made all the headlines, so Coach reckoned my top-dog status would inspire everybody else to work harder – much harder. Asafa, Tyson, some kid in Europe pulling on a pair of spikes for the first time: the whole racing world wanted to knock me off my perch.
‘It’s your own fault,’ he said as we relaxed in the Village after the 4x100 relay. ‘If you hadn’t run so fast, no one would be planning on training bigger, but right now they’re coming for you. They’re dreaming of beating you. You’re on top and the other guys don’t like it.’
I thought of it as Manchester United Syndrome. Nobody liked a winner, especially one that kept on killing the opposition, but what I didn’t know was that fans of other athletes would occasionally come at me, journalists too, and I got my first taste of controversy at a press conference towards the end of the Games. At first it was the standard set-up: a room rammed full of international reporters and TV cameramen, as everyone took turns to ask the usual questions about my performances, the gold medals and my Olympic experience, even though I’d answered them a million times already.
Then it got interesting. An American writer asked me how I felt about Tyson’s absence. Some experts felt the races had swung in my favour once he’d pulled out through injury.
‘True, the people saying that have a very good point,’ I said. ‘Tyson Gay was one of the better athletes in the field, so yeah, I didn’t beat the best. Even though I won golds and broke world records, I’ll just have prove to myself again by beating him next time.’
Talk shifted to Jacques Rogge, the International Olympic Committee President. He was the guy in charge of the Games – The Main Man. But Rogge had criticised my celebrations during the 100 metres final victory and claimed my open-armed gesture could have been perceived as being a disrespectful swipe at the other athletes.
‘It would be good not to have a repeat of the “Catch me if you can” gesture,’ he’d told the press.
I explained to the conference that when Rogge made his claim, I was shocked, I didn’t mean any disrespect. My dad had brought me up too well for that and he would have had something to say if I’d acted in a rude way, especially in front of millions and millions of people. I admitted I was worried for a minute, though. I’d thought, ‘S**t, maybe I went too far?’ I knew all the Caribbean guys in the race, so I asked whether any of them had been put out by the fooling around.
‘Nah, dawg,’ they said. ‘If one of us had won, we’d have done the same thing.’
Next up, a journalist came to me with a serious issue. The one that nearly every champion athlete has faced at some point in his career.
‘So, Usain, you just popped on to the scene,’ he said, microphone in hand, the whole room watching, notepads and tape recorders at the ready. ‘What should we think about you running so fast … out of nowhere?’
He was insinuating that something suspicious had been going on: doping by performance-enhancing drugs or steroids. That in itself was a serious accusation, but it was his opening words that got me mad because the man had his facts all wrong. Sure, ask me some serious and legitimate questions about cheating and substance abuse, but to base a charge on the information that I’d just popped on to the scene? That got me a little riled.
‘Hold on, stop a second,’ I said. ‘I just started running fast? How long have you been doing this job for?’
Everyone in the room busted out laughing.
‘Er, five years,’ he said, looking embarrassed.
‘I’ve been running fast since I was 15, that’s seven years of successful track and field already,’ I said. ‘I won the World Juniors and I hold the world junior record in the 200 metres. I’ve won CARIFTA Games medals and IAAF Rising Star Awards. Come on, do your homework before you ask stupid questions. Have you not been following me all these years? Even if you haven’t been following me, do some research. Type in “Usain Bolt” on your laptop and see what comes up.’
I wasn’t trying to humiliate or upset the man, but his question had crossed the line, because it attacked me personally without understanding my career. I hadn’t come out of nowhere, I’d been on the scene for a long time, so my success wasn’t totally unexpected, or a freak moment in sporting history, especially not in the 200 metres. If there was any doubt about my integrity, he should have asked me the question straight: Do you take drugs? I was happy for people to ask those questions. I was clean, always had been, always will be.
There were always going to be questions surrounding athletes when they performed fantastically well on the global stage. I got that. People were suspicious because a number of stars had cheated the system in the past. Some athletes had taken steroids to make them physically stronger in training; others had used performance-enhancing drugs to give them an edge on the start line. A number of gold-medal athletes had reached the end of their careers and admitted to taking drugs, while others had been caught by the authorities during major championships, like the 100 metres runner Ben Johnson in Seoul 1988. Their actions had let the public down; the trust had gone for some fans.
So I understood why journalists might have been suspicious of any athletic successes, especially one as incredible as mine, but I had nothing to hide. I was honest. My parents raised me to be competitive and to win, but not at the expense of my integrity. I even hated the idea of winning a race if I knew I’d performed badly, like in Stockholm when I let Asafa take first place at the line. Cheating was not an option. Besides, doping was for the guys who lacked the physical ability to compete, and I didn’t have that problem.
When it came to staying away from trouble with the doping tests, I was careful about everything I drank or ate. It got to a point where I wouldn’t even touch caffeine, because I knew it had caused problems for athletes in the past. Before Beijing, there was story going around of a US runner who had guzzled three cans of an energy drink before a drug test. Afterwards, his sample had ‘glowed’ during the testing process and he was banned. Wow, that gave me a scare. Whenever I went to clubs, I’d always mixed my liquor with energy drinks, but after that story I partied with cranberry juice instead.
I was so worried about it that when I got sick I wouldn’t take any medicine. If I caught a cough, I relied on vitamin C for help, rather than off-the-shelf drugs from the store. Maybe I’d take a painkiller if I was really rough, but cough medicines were out because they were so full of chemicals and there was a risk that I might get into serious trouble if I’d innocently put any in my system. Once a cold came on, I had to ride it out. It was a cruel world for any athlete with flu.
But so what? I knew that the consequences for my long-term career far outweighed the pain of any cold, which only lasted for a few days. To risk my track and field life for a cough syrup was a dumb-assed move, because I was always getting tested. At competitions I got tested. If ever there was a drug scandal in sport I got tested.* Whenever I went to Germany to see Dr Müller-Wohlfahrt, the doping guys often arrived with their kit and their clipboards and I got tested. During one trip I was tested three times by three different authorities. There was one test by WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency), one by the IAAF and another by a German agency. On the third visit, I was pissed.
‘Seriously?’ I said. ‘Do you people not talk to one another?’
I’d rather do too much testing than too little, though. It used to be that track and field people complained about the Jamaican anti-doping system, especially the Americans. They cussed us and made noises about how we weren’t drug tested enough, especially out of competition. Those were the tests that happened in the off season when background training took place. The US guys figured that Jamaican athletes were exploiting that window to dope. Their theory was that the track and field guys ‘used’ so they could get fitter and stronger in the build-up to the big meets.
Then they said our testing system was erratic, a bit like the clock in Kingston’s National Stadium, because out-of-competition tests of that kind were arranged by the JADCO (Jamaican Anti-Doping Commission) rather than WADA or the IAAF. A lot of rival athletics organisations felt they were too infrequent, but after my first few years of competing as a pro, the JADCO upped their game and testing became more regular. I got to see the authorities all the time, and in a way I was happy about that because the grumbling eased up. It also meant our sport was a lot cleaner. The more testing there was, the less people felt tempted to cheat. The less cheating there was, the more people could trust the athletes.
But man, giving those tests was a bummer. According to regulations I’d have to tell the authorities where I was and when, every day. My movements were filled out on what was called a ‘Whereabouts’ sheet. I couldn’t even disappear for a holiday without telling the guys in charge, because on random days, without warning, they might come around to my house or hotel, depending on whether I was in Kingston, London or in Germany, for a urine sample – and if I wasn’t there, I’d be in serious trouble. Their aim was to detect whether an athlete had used steroids or performance-enhancing agents. My pee was then taken away for examination and the results were sent to the authorities.
Those visits always took place early in the day, because I’d given the testers a registered window where they could hit me up between six and seven in the morning on any date, whether it was convenient for me or not. So every night I had to make sure I didn’t get up for the bathroom, just in case they arrived at dawn. If I did make the mistake of emptying my bladder, it often took me ages to go again once the doping control men had arrived. That was always awkward for me because they would sit there all morning waiting for me to go, and watching me constantly, because there was a risk that a cheating athlete might switch their urine with a ‘clean’ sample behind closed doors. When I eventually got the urge, they followed me into the toilet and stared at my crotch. At first I didn’t like it, some guy eyeballing my dick, looking at me as I pee’d into a bottle. It freaked me out.
‘What are you looking for?’ I complained the first time. ‘You don’t have to look directly at it!’
They did, though, and usually the guys were embarrassed at the process, so they only looked a little. But there were other testers who enjoyed it, and who really stared. There was one morning when an official told me I had to pull my shorts down to prove I wasn’t hiding anything, and then he wanted me to pull up my shirt.
‘Seriously, dude?’ I laughed. ‘You can see everything that’s going on!’
The rules were the rules, though. I’d rather have suffered the tests and been able to compete than skip one and never run again. That would have been more embarrassing than any drugs test in the world. My job was to stick to the game plan, to run as fast as I could and deliver as many samples as the authorities wanted. And all tests were passed; I knew I was clean.
They said I was a legend, but I knew that wasn’t true. Not then, not yet. To achieve a status of that kind, I’d have to win another three Olympic medals in London 2012, but the people of Jamaica didn’t see it that way. They were going wild over my success in Beijing and no amount of warnings from Pops, or the YouTube clips of people going crazy in the streets, could prepare me for the hysteria when I arrived home.
As the plane came in on the runway at Kingston’s Norman Manley Airport I looked out of the window and did a double take. There were thousands of people waiting for me. The tarmac was rammed. Fans had brought flags and banners and I could see them waving and jumping up and down. Even the Prime Minister was there, waiting to shake my hand. I’d heard that it was illegal for people to encroach on to an international runway, but rules of that kind didn’t hold much sway in Jamaica. It seemed my return was bigger than any airport law.
It was then that a twist of fate took place, though I only realised it was important when I thought about it much later: the rain came down. As I fought my way across the runway to a car that was waiting to take me to New Kingston, the business district of town, people hugged and kissed me, reached out to touch my skin and grabbed my clothes. But as the clouds opened, some of the crowd ran for cover. There had been plans for me to ride through Kingston in a soft-top car with the roof down, but the weather put a stop to that idea.
Thank God. When our wheels came out of Norman Manley Highway and into Harbour View, I caught my first glimpse of the life that awaited me, for the next few months at least. There were thousands upon thousands of people hanging around to see me, and as the car made its way towards the city, they surrounded us. Jamaican people can be slightly aggressive sometimes. If they want to see someone, or take a picture, they’re going to do it, and to hell with the manners. Hands reached inside to touch me, people screamed my name. I got scratched up, the car took some serious dents. It reminded me of the disaster movie War of the Worlds. There’s a scene where Tom Cruise drives the only working car out of New Jersey and, as he speeds through a crowd of crazy people, everybody tries to get at him. I felt like that: I was trapped, the fans were surrounding the car and it was scary. If the roof had been down I probably would have been mauled.
A press conference had been arranged for me in the Pegasus Hotel in the middle of Kingston, but when the building came into view, I freaked. I had never seen so many people in one place. The lobby was full, the car park was full, the whole street outside was full. Fans stood in front of the car and refused to move until the police came along to clear them away. It was the first time I’d ever seen the people of Jamaica give their love like that. The motorcade after my World Junior Championships gold medal in 2002 had been pretty big, but even that seemed small time in comparison to my Olympic homecoming. The only thought going through my mind was, ‘Yo, what the hell’s going on here?’
I guess it was even more overwhelming because I knew how sports fans were in Jamaica. They were laid back and it took a lot to impress them. Their excitement was a sign that they really appreciated what had happened in Beijing. But I wasn’t going to be tricked. Once I’d got away from the madness and took in a moment of quiet, I came to terms with what was happening to me and my track and field career.
‘Don’t be fooled,’ I said to myself. ‘You gotta remind yourself that these are Jamaicans. You know what you did for them was good, and if you do good again they’ll give you more love. But don’t get drawn into this. Remember the boos from Kingston last time. If you mess up again, they’ll cut your throat.’
I also realised that my home life had changed for ever. By this time I was renting my own apartment in Kingston, away from Mr Peart’s digs, but it was located on the side of a busy road and everybody in the city knew where I lived. Apparently fans were already hanging around outside the front door.
‘Ah, I don’t think you can go back home for a while,’ said Mr Peart. ‘We’ll arrange for you to stay in the Pegasus until it quietens down.’
It wasn’t long before that arrangement became troublesome. After a few weeks, fans were hanging around in the lobby, waiting to catch a glimpse of me. The nights of going out for junk food with my brother were long gone, and even partying was a stress because people rushed me everywhere I went. The first time I went into the Quad, a DJ grabbed the mic and shouted, ‘Usain Bolt’s in the club!’ Everybody turned around and rushed towards me and I had to hide behind my friends because the whole place wanted a picture. People pointed their phones at me all night, and I felt trapped – but like Coach said, it was my own fault for running so damn fast.
Still, there was one upside to all the crazy attention. The ladies threw themselves at me. I guess it wasn’t an entirely new thing; I had got girls before, especially once my presence had picked up on the pro athlete scene, but after Beijing it was different. I was able to get any lady I wanted, and once the initial hysteria died down, I could walk into a party and take my pick. I would go into a club and think, ‘Hmm, a’ight, which one? You …? You …? Oh, you! Let’s do this.’ It was a dream come true for a young guy like myself. Think about it: 22 years old and in my prime, I was like a kid in a candy store.
I’m sure I was no different to any other famous person when they hit the big time. The girls got excited and they thought, ‘Oh, I wanna piece of him!’ I was the hot new thing, but I had a girlfriend at the time. I had done almost from the moment I’d moved to Kingston, when I started dating a girl called Mizicann Evans. She was two years younger than me, a student at the University College of the Caribbean (UCC), and we had met in a food court in Kingston where I used to hang sometimes. At first we were friends – Mizzi was cool fun, and she always wore a big smile – but it wasn’t long before we started taking things more seriously. By the time of Beijing we’d been dating for five years.
The good thing about me and Mizzi was that we understood one another, especially when it came to the fame and the attention that was often focused on me, plus everything that went along with it. She was relaxed when it came to other girls hanging around, which Mizzi saw as part of the deal when it came to dating me, but we had one rule: if I was doing my thing with someone else and Mizzi didn’t know, then she was cool. But if she found out that something had happened between me and another girl, then that person had to go, even if it was only a slight rumour.
All the attention I could handle, it wasn’t a stress, but I found that some of the brushes with celebrities could be quite weird. I once went to a club in London and the former Chelsea striker Didier Drogba came over to talk. I couldn’t believe he knew who I was, because every day at home I watched the Premier League and vibed off how powerful he was as a centre-forward. I would have been happy with a hello and a handshake, but then he told me how much he’d enjoyed watching my races in the Olympics, and that blew my mind.
‘What’s he talking about?’ I thought. ‘Watching my races? Those guys in the Premier League are my idols. Wow, this is kinda different now …’
But I guess it didn’t get much stranger than the night I had with Heidi Klum and Sandra Bullock in Los Angeles. I was in Hollywood doing some promotion work and afterwards I went to a restaurant in Beverly Hills. Those two girls, among the most beautiful in film, were sitting at another table. As we were leaving, the restaurant manager asked me for a photo. That’s when Sandra and Heidi glanced over. The pair of them were dressed up and looked pretty fine.
‘Oh, so you guys are partying?’ said Heidi.
I’d never met either of them before, but the power of my new-found celebrity had kicked in. Like Drogba in London, they had recognised me.
‘Yeah, wanna come?’ I said, laughing.
‘Sure. If that’s OK?’
If that’s OK?!
Man, what a night. We all went to a club and chilled; we hung out and had fun; we talked, danced and sipped some champagne – but nothing more happened, despite what some of the gossip websites might have said the following morning. Still, I was hoping, though. Come on, it was Heidi Klum and Sandra Bullock. What dude wouldn’t?
Coach had to keep me motivated. As the world’s number one athlete I needed to work even harder if I wanted to stay on top, he told me. I was given a couple of extra weeks off before background work started up again, so I could get my head around the dramatic changes in my life, but after that, his tough programme began with a vengeance.
‘The hard work starts here, Usain,’ he said as we got back to the training laps, cramping muscles and vomiting. I started laughing.
‘Seriously, Coach? It just starts now? What have we been doing for the last four years?’
But Coach had a clear plan for how I had to work if I was to stay on top. ‘If you want to live this superstar life you’re still gonna have to run as fast as before – faster even,’ he said. ‘It’s great to be number one, everyone on the planet wants a piece of you, Mr Superstar. But if Tyson beats you, or if Asafa beats you, it won’t look good. Your money will drop because the promoters won’t want to pay big bucks for a guy in second place …’
That got me thinking. Cash flow was something that had changed almost overnight. The days of racing for modest appearance cheques were over, and my gold medals in Beijing had made me a top biller. I’d overtaken Tyson and Asafa as a name to fill the stadiums, which meant I could command the biggest fees on the circuit. But the figures that were being thrown around were huge, eye-watering even, because I brought something different to the track whenever I raced. I had an image.
Fans loved me because I fooled around and engaged with them all the time, and no other athlete was playing that game. Because of the fun I’d taken to Beijing, people were going crazy over my every race, and as the 2009 season got under way, it became clear that I was a big draw for race promoters. I stacked stadiums on my own, and every time my name was announced on a race card, the event sold out shortly afterwards.
I gave Mom and Pops enough money so they would never have to stress about working again. But even with their cash in the bank, my dad refused to put his foot up. He used the money I gave him to open a little store in the community so he could help the folks living in Coxeath. The man would not stop working.
With money came extra responsibility, though. I had to learn some big lessons about who I was and what I did for a living. The simple truth was that I had gone from being a sprinter to a global brand. I wasn’t just an athlete any more, I’d become a role model and an entertainer, and though I was still killing myself on the University of the West Indies track to be the best competitor around, I also had to deliver a personality, like the one the world had first seen in Beijing. People wanted to freak at my race times, but they also wanted to see what games I was bringing to the track. Fans asked, ‘What flair will he be coming with this time?’ There was anticipation whenever I raced.
That could mask the occasional poor performance. Not long after the ’09 season started I ran ten flat in a Toronto meet in bad weather, which was pretty awful by my standards at that time, but there was still euphoria in the bleachers when I crossed the line. It was clear that people didn’t care about my times, but they were happy to see me fooling around, dancing and pulling my ‘To Di World’ pose. That set off a new mindset, and every time I travelled to a different country I tuned into the local buzz so I could send the crowds wild. I raced in Brazil and pulled a samba move on the track. When I travelled to Rome I grabbed a fan’s Italian flag and ran around the arena, waving it in the air. The whole place went crazy.
It dropped with me that my career wasn’t about just running fast. The speed was a big part of it, for sure, but personality and superstardom had become just as important, like it had been for some other athletes in the past. Big personalities were a draw for a lot of fans. I’d seen close up that the people in Jamaica loved Asafa because he was Mr Nice Guy, but in the USA they had been wild for Maurice Greene because at his peak he was a cocky dude. The American Justin Gatlin was another story, though. He had his fans, but people didn’t love him in the same way because there was no story, no image. He was just a serious athlete. I knew that I had to present the character that people had first enjoyed in Beijing because that’s what attracted the attention. In turn, those crowds attracted sponsors. They said, ‘Hmm, this guy is playing nice and people love his style. Let’s endorse him!’
As the 2009 season started, invitations, contracts and promotion offers arrived thick and fast, and at times it was overwhelming. Ricky managed the international opportunities and Mr Peart dealt with it on a Jamaican level. We soon took care of business with mobile-phone brands, and drinks, watch and sports companies.
My job in all of this was to turn up and deliver, so I raced hard and played funny. But there was always an understanding that I had to be on my best behaviour, all of the time, because any bad PR might be disastrous. In one meeting, Ricky explained to me how my public image had changed. He told me that I had to think about the consequences of my actions at all times, because they might affect how a sponsor viewed me in the future. A screw-up could damage my market value and my potential earnings.
‘Remember,’ he said, ‘you’re not just Usain anymore. You’re Usain Bolt, the brand, the business, all the time.’
I had to remind myself of that every day, which meant saying goodbye to certain aspects of my life. I knew that getting caught in a Kingston fast-food joint was not a good thing; neither was getting photographed with liquor at a Quad party. But I had limits. A lot of the time I was happy to stay indoors and chill with friends, but the one thing I couldn’t do without was a party every now and then.
I knew that Coach would be pissed at hearing the news, and maybe Ricky as well, but I’d reached an understanding of what was needed if I was to function effectively as an athlete. I’d learned how to read my body on the track, but after Beijing I understood my mind, too. Going out occasionally, dancing and chilling with friends was a release valve from the pressures of living in the spotlight. It helped me to work properly on the track and nobody, nobodywas going to tell me otherwise.
My thing was that I’d seen so many people in track and field, and other sports, mess up their careers because people had told them what to do and what not to do, almost from the moment their lives had become successful, if not before. The joy had been taken from them. To compensate, they felt the need to take drugs, get drunk every night, or go wild. Some of them went overboard as their careers ended, and they hurt other people. One or two sports stars died because of their vices. I realised I had to enjoy myself in order to stay sane, and in my mind, as long as I stayed legal and didn’t hurt anyone else, I was fine.
To me, there was no sense in leading a strict existence. I guess in that respect I was just like most other guys. I wanted to enjoy myself, and I knew what would happen if my lifestyle was contained in any way. One day I picked up a magazine and read about several Premiership footballers who were getting married to their girls, and they were 21, 22 years of age. I thought, ‘You’ve just got rich, you’ve just got super-famous and you’ve just got married? What the hell? That’s when the fun is supposed to start!’ I then picked up a newspaper and read about several other Premiership footballers who had been cheating on the wives they’d married at the age of 21, 22. It seemed crazy to me.
For a bit of fun I bought a quad bike – and everybody went mad. They told me not to ride it. They went on and on about how dangerous it was, like I didn’t know, but riding that bike was my choice.
‘Yo, you cannot tell me not to ride my quad,’ I said. ‘I know they’re dangerous, but I wanna ride it because it brings me joy. When I’m on my quad, my problems go away, I’m not worried about anything, I’m having fun.’
Coach saw it differently. If it was down to him, I would have trained in the mornings, afternoons and evenings, six days a week. When I wasn’t training, he’d have preferred me to be indoors playing video games. He told me not to ride quads, not to play football or basketball. One time, he even told me to avoid sex.
‘I don’t worry about you when you’re unfit, Usain,’ he said. ‘It’s when you’re strong that I stress, because you’re testosterone goes high – through the roof. You have the potential to get yourself into trouble.’
If I had followed Coach’s advice, though, I would have driven myself insane. I’d probably have bored myself just by looking in the mirror. My plan was clear. To race fast and win big, I knew that every now and then I had to live fast. It was the only way for me to stay focused.
* Every time there’s a drug scandal they test me. When it all came out about Lance Armstrong in 2012, I remember thinking, ‘OK, they’re going to be coming around to my house soon, then.’ And on cue, a week after, they were there. Two times, they showed up. But I guess it’s always going to be like that.